Arts & Culture

‘Detroit’ movie highlights where the city went wrong — and how it can go forward


Here’s a misleading yet absolutely true statement: There’s nothing good about the new “Detroit” movie, a Hollywood film that focuses on Detroit’s 1967 riot/rebellion and the killings at the Algiers motel.

That’s because nothing good comes from that night of pure horror – three young men died and others terrorized as a result of the violence that sparked in the city 50 years ago this week.

IMG_4820But what is good – what is incredibly good – about “Detroit” is the people involved in the process, the way they carried themselves when they were in the city and the way they will take this experience with them into the future. Detroit and this movie will impact these actors, these social-media stars, these up-and-coming activists.

“Detroit,” a movie about the July 1967 uprising in Detroit, had its world premiere at the Fox Theatre Tuesday night. That was entirely on purpose and no accident. Director Kathryn Bigelow insisted, according to insiders, that the film be shown in Detroit on July 25 – the night that the Algiers was lit up by gunfire, real and imagined.

As a result, the city has been alive with Hollywood magic for the past week. Stars of the movie have volunteered at Focus HOPE and Forgotten Harvest. They have dished coney dogs at American. They have toured the Detroit Historical Museum. It’s been mind boggling how many places they’ve visited and how many lives they’ve touched for the few minutes they’ve been here.

One actor, Nathan Davis Jr., said he even discovered through the premiere week that he has an aunt in the city. Sure, he learned his movie chops by doing “Detroit” as an actor. But he also learned about history, about what it means to be Black in America and that he has roots deeper than he even imagined.

Martha Reeves (right) walked the red carpet Tuesday.

Martha Reeves (right) walked the red carpet Tuesday.

The premiere was a wild time – Detroit rarely if ever has a red-carpet event like this, even with the North American International Auto Show and the “auto prom” experiences under our collective belts. There were media from local, state and national publications as well as some international outlets. The Fox Theatre was a great location, and the stars were many on site, including songstress Martha Reeves – who was on stage at the Fox during the start of the riot/rebellion and had to tell the audience it was time to go home. There also were dignitaries such as Ike McKinnon, Police Chief James Craig and Melvin Dismukes, the controversial “star” of this film and of what happened to real people during the 1967 drama.

McKinnon was straightforward about the movie and the events of 1967. He was shot at by his fellow police officers — because he was Black. He called the police depicted in the movie nothing short of vigilantes.

“I’m happy we are having this moment of reflection,” McKinnon said in media row, “so we can understand how brutal things can be.”

People lined up for hours outside of the theater for a chance to see the movie. There were people of every color, age and ethnicity. There were people in jeans and those in full dress. Cocktail attire was the highlight, and the handmade dress from Metro Times papers was a true standout. Inside, the dress worn by a striking woman who goes by Jacx (the artist Jaclyn Schanes) also got attention because it came from Lilac Pop Studios and was made of car interiors. Very Motor City.

“Detroit,” by the way, is a hell of a movie. Bigelow proves once again that she is the master of tension and brutality. She knows how to put the viewer directly in the path of the shot – whether it is the death of a toddler who is “accidentally” killed during the beginning of the riot/rebellion or the lineup of men and women who were held basically hostage by Detroit Police during the Algiers raid.

Director Kathryn Bigelow wants the movie to spark a dialogue in Detroit.

Director Kathryn Bigelow wants the movie to spark a dialogue in Detroit.

Seeing the movie will stay with you – it is the kind of film that makes you feel sick both mentally and physically. It’s hard to understand or digest “Detroit” and what the city went through as a result the horrors of 1967 and its aftermath. But this movie helps you understand if you weren’t alive or too young to recall how dramatically disturbing those days were – and how as well as why Detroit looks and acts the way it does now.

Actor Will Poulter, who plays “Krauss,” arguably the evilest character to be found on screen or in Detroit in general, said during the premiere’s red-carpet event that he appreciated how the actors respected one another on and off screen – that’s something that allowed them to “play the extremes” necessary to tell this troubling story.

Detroit as a whole is a vulnerable place. It is a city that wears its pain in the form of both emotional and physical scars. That’s clear from the neighborhoods around the new 1967 historical marker now in place in Gordon Park near the streets of Clairmount and Rosa Parks, where the riot/rebellion began.

Having a movie like this come out right now, during the 50th anniversary commemoration, won’t heal any wounds. And the actors in the movie know that. But they said during the premiere that they hope the movie starts conversations, brings people together to discuss what they saw and helps spark a notion that things have got to change, especially in modern America.

That was what Ben O’Toole believes, one of the actors in “Detroit” who played Flynn, an officer who makes grievous mistakes in his role as protector of the public. He hopes the movie keeps these issues in front of the general public and increases our discussion of these issues.

The crew bonded early in the filming to help combat the violence in the movie.

The crew bonded early in the filming to help combat the violence in the movie.

O’Toole said during a media-row interview that he hopes the people watching the movie will feel the pain and anguish of the moments depicted at the Algiers that night. But that’s the point – and he wanted people to feel those emotions through his performance. How could we dehumanize each other? How can gun violence, especially against the Black community, be tolerated?

If you see the movie, you’ll understand how much work, love and devotion these young actors and this team put into the film. They chose to narrow the focus of the movie from the riot/rebellion to the Algiers and then to individuals who were there in hopes of telling a real and truthful story. Their sincerity was there Tuesday night as they talked to media, greeted one another as brothers and sisters and did selfies with perfect strangers – all willingly doing so and even thanking people for coming out for the event. Stars – at least, stars that you see on TV – don’t normally do that. These did.

Bigelow thanked the people of Detroit during her introduction of the film, and said told the crowd that she believes the city has a bright future. She brought forward many names and people to the stage, including Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, who asked in Elle magazine and elsewhere that people understand that this is the work of an artist, that it was done with feeling and that it needs dissection to be understood completely. That comes with a real need for conversation around race, diversity and equality in Detroit and everywhere.

“I want this to lead to a dialogue,” Bigelow said, and she also thanked the Charles H. Wright Museum – earning her a huge round of applause from the appreciative audience. “Detroit” was the first movie to premiere at the Fox, and it was a historic and iconic moment for the director and the city.

Detroit dressed up for the first movie premiere at the Fox Theatre.

Detroit dressed up for the first movie premiere at the Fox Theatre.

I also had the honor of seeing “12th and Clairmount” as preparation for the “Detroit” experience. That film – made up of first-person accounts, home movies and research into the overall events of that time period – was raw, intelligent and emotional. It also left you questioning everything you thought you knew about Detroit and feeling humble about your role in fostering a better community. It was a bold effort by the Detroit Free Press, the Freep Film Festival, Bridge and their other partners to tell a story and do so in a unique way. I wish they had mentioned the 1943 race riot in Detroit as well as background, but that is another story that needs to be told in a similar way, I suppose.

Like others, I question the use of “Detroit” as the title of the movie. This is a city with more than 300 years of history. And while the Algiers motel was indeed a scathing mark on us collectively, it is not the only thing that defines Detroit. I know focusing on the motel’s name wouldn’t drive box-office sales, but having a negative impact on city residents who have worked for decades to keep Detroit going, on a city that’s mid-revival and on its impressive growth should be avoided at all costs.

In the end, I’d recommend “Detroit” as a first step toward understanding the city, the events of July 1967 and the people that stayed, live here and work here today. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is one that grabs you by the throat, shakes you up and leaves you breathless. And that’s what history – especially these telling moments of history – should do.

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