I had the opportunity to attend an advance screening of the new movie Detroit yesterday night. For someone like me, born after the 60s, events like the riots in Detroit, and the Algiers motel incident are not something I’d have seen in the news. And having watched the movie with my teenage son who loves history, he was dismayed that the details of this period are glossed over quickly, merely summarized in history classes in high school in very brief terms: “there were riots in Detroit.” But these events are the crucial background and context to the struggle that continues in the present day to end the murders, and abuses of authority, perpetrated by police officers against black people. And so I am not going to leave my recommendation for the ending. Go see this movie. See it with your family, anyone old enough to be allowed to witness police brutality at its most horrifying. See it with your church – because, although in some ways marginal, the religious elements deserve attention. If you are white, watch it in a diverse neighborhood where you can hear how your African American neighbors react to the scenes. Watch it and talk about it. Because ultimately, that is what will result in the movie being more than art as entertainment, and become art as social commentary and agent for change in a society that desperately needs it.
The movie begins with a brief setting of the stage, with animated art filling in the story of the Great Migration from the south in search of jobs for companies like Ford, and the migration of white people from inner cities to suburbs, dividing cities along racial lines. This resulted in largely white police forces patrolling black neighborhoods, engaging in abuses of power that created incredible tension.
The story proper begins with the event that triggered the riots. There was a welcome home party for a veteran, at an unlicensed club. On the wall, a sign can be seen which says that “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger.” This is one theme that runs like a thread through the film – the utter disrespect which is shown to African-American veterans in the country they served in a military capacity. The police show up to end the party, and drag everyone outside, having to use the front door since the back door is chained shut. As they force everyone to line up against the wall and get into police vans, people from the neighborhood gather and begin throwing things. Soon this escalates to looting and setting buildings on fire.
This is Sunday, July 23rd, 1967 – just over 50 years ago.
The local congressman pleads with people not to mess up their own neighborhood, saying that change is coming but it doesn’t happen overnight. The crowds are unimpressed.
We also see a band, The Dramatics, one member of which – lead singer Larry Reed, portrayed compellingly in both acting and singing by Algee Smith, becomes a focus of the story. The band is due to go onstage when someone shows up asking everyone to go home because of the rioting, for their safety. They do so, and Larry together with his friend Fred decide to stay at the Algiers Motel until things calm down and it is safe to leave.
The movie’s trailer gives a good sense of the moment that a poignant illustration sparks what unfolds next:
A discussion about John Coltrane (which mentions that his heroin addiction doesn’t necessarily detract from his spiritual example) turns to the subject of how black people are forced to live with the feeling of a gun pointed at them, as police use language like “my street” to take ownership of neighborhoods they patrol but do not live in. A starter pistol is brought out and used as an illustration – and, when fired, is mistaken for a real sniper, leading a police officer – who was already likely to face a murder charge for shooting a fleeing looter in the back – to come to the Algiers, where he lines people up, shoots some, and tries to terrorize the rest in order to find out who had been shooting. In the process, we get to see the planting of knives and other attempts to blame the victims.
Throughout the film, we regularly hear people in powerful positions say the right things. “We don’t shoot people for robberies,” or “they have civil rights.” And yet we regularly see people – sometimes those same people who say the right things – make other choices in the midst of tense situations. One of the most horrifying moments in the movie is when a little girl watches from a high apartment building window as tanks roll into her neighborhood. Her movement in the window is mistaken for a sniper, and the tank opens fire.
I mentioned the place of religion in the film, and this is worth emphasizing. The leader of the abusive police tells the kids he has lined up against the wall to start praying, mockingly asking them whether they don’t go to church, and know gospel music. But we also see the victims of this police brutality actually pray, and one of them kiss the cross around his neck, as they hope and pray that the nightmare that they are being subjected to will end.
Larry finds himself unable to carry on singing music that white people will dance to, and to perform in clubs where white police officers make him feel unsafe. This is one of the really powerful points that I hope viewers will take away from the movie: the emotional toll that police brutality and racism have. We lose not only lives but art and accomplishments as a result. Eventually, Larry applies for the position of choir director at a small neighborhood church, and gets the job despite being told that he is overqualified when he explains why he needs the job. As we hear him singing the lead with the choir towards the end of the movie, the words that he sings should not be missed. The Baptist hymn in question is called “Peace! Be Still!” Here is an excerpt from the lyrics:
Master, the tempest is raging!
The billows are tossing high!
The sky is o’ershadowed with blackness,
No shelter or help is nigh:
“Carest Thou not that we perish?”
How canst Thou lie asleep,
When each moment so madly is threat’ning
A grave in the angry deep?
And so as I said, we see two different sides of religion. We see its role in oppression, when an abusive racist police officer can tell people “say your prayers” and even “May he rest in peace, Amen” after shooting and killing an unarmed man. But we also see its role in bringing comfort to those who find themselves on the receiving end of that oppression. And, in some other music (mentioned below) we catch brief glimpses of a third side, the potential of religion to play a role in critiquing unjust individuals, actions, and social structures, and to work towards change.
All of the film’s music – period, sacred, or new – is powerful. Here is the song from the soundtrack, “It Ain’t Fair” by Bilal and The Roots, courtesy of Rolling Stone. It is replete with powerful biblical images – such as wolves dressed like sheet which patrol our streets, and reaping what we sow – as well as tackling pop culture religious platitudes such as “Jesus take the wheel.” Listen to it, carefully:
As I said at the beginning of this review, the movie is incredibly powerful. It is hard to watch the events that unfold and the things to which innocent people are subjected – not only at the hands of police, but also at the trial of the police officers, when their lawyer tries to discredit their testimony by mentioning prior run-ins with police, as though any such details made the actions of the police officers in question any less reprehensible.
At one point we hear someone on the radio saying that “police criminality needs to be treated the same as any form of criminality.” We are not there yet, but the numerous recent murders by police officers, and responses such as Black Lives Matter, at least give me some hope that these issues are being wrestled with by a larger number of people. But 50 years after the Detroit riots and the incident at the Algiers Motel, we still have the problem. I can only hope that 50 years from now, if someone makes a movie about police brutality and racism in our time, they will not feel the distress that anyone with an open mind and heart will feel when watching Detroit. That reaction, however, is appropriate and necessary, if we are ever to make progress in bringing about real, substantive, lasting change. And so I hope that the movie will be seen far and wide, and talked about, however painful those conversations may be for those participating in them.