Riot and Rebellion: Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit


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Please note that this article contains spoilers and details of violent incidents.  

The action of Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit begins with a raid on an unlicensed social club at 12th Street and Clairmount in the early hours of 23rd July 1967.  The United Community League for Civic Action, located on the first floor of the Economy Printing building, had been raided twice before; both prior raids had resulted in numerous arrests.  That same night, four other such clubs across the city - holdovers from the Prohibition era known as 'blind pigs' - were also raided [1]. 

The reason Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal - in their third collaboration, following The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) - choose this relatively routine incident as their film's starting point is because it is now seen as the single act that began the 1967 Detroit riot [2].  Yet the film's concentrated historical focus does not allow for further expansion on either how or why this otherwise unexceptional moment sparked such a unified outpouring of anger and violence.  

Less than a month earlier, on 24th June, a 27-year-old black Vietnam veteran named Daniel Thomas and his pregnant wife, Louise, went for a Saturday picnic in Detroit's Rouge Park.  For an hour, the couple tried to escape harassment from a gang of seven white men; as Thomas sought to protect his wife from their threats of rape, one of the gang shot him.  Shortly after the death of her husband, Louise Thomas miscarried; his killer was eventually acquitted.  The Thomas family lived less than six blocks from the United Community League for Civic Action. 

One week later, on 1st July, a 24-year-old black sex worker named Vivian Williams was shot and killed in front of her home at 12th Street and Hazelwood, two blocks south of Clairmount.  Police investigators offered conflicting stories: that the murder had been carried out by a pimp, or that Williams had been shot by a spurned customer.  Local residents, however, maintained the killing was the work of a white Vice Squad officer [3].  

Added to these were the circumstances of the 12th Street and Clairmount raid itself.  The blind pig had been repurposed that night for a party in honour of two servicemen just returned from tours of duty in Vietnam.  Thus, instead of the two dozen regulars they were expecting, the police found themselves arresting 82 people.  It took a full hour before they were all finally transported from the scene, allowing a crowd of 200 to gather in the meantime.  At 5am, just after the last arrest was made, an empty bottle was thrown into the window of a departing police car [4].

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Such context provides, if not a comprehensive background, then at least an understandable one to the fury which instantly erupts after the throwing of that bottle, as depicted in the film [5].  It also establishes the essential precedents to the fatal violence which comes to dominate the film's central episode: the killing of three black teenagers by three white police officers in an annex of Detroit's Algiers Motel on the night of 25th-26th July 1967.  

In this extended sequence, Bigelow explores new territory in her work, presenting a stripped-down, all-but-real-time account of the events that resulted in the three deaths.  More concentrated and more harrowing than her previous chronicle, Zero Dark Thirty, her attentiveness to the details of the Algiers Motel incident is so unflinching that it effectively proves historians' assertions that these murders 'were essentially lynchings' [6].  

And it is testament to the power of this episode that, despite Detroit's two-and-a-half-hour runtime, there remains so much more that might have been included around it.  Indeed, the centrality of the Algiers Motel incident within the film obscures the fact that it was only one of five separate incidents during the five-day Detroit riot in which unarmed black civilians were killed by white police or National Guard soldiers, all without apparent motive [7].  

Yet the film's most glaring omission is that so little space exists in it for the expression of black rage; for all its undeniable impact, by focussing on the Algiers Motel incident, it instead ensures that a series of angry white men are granted ample opportunity for articulating an endless stream of racist and misogynist abuse.  Their victims, for the most part, remain stoically, fearfully or tactically silent; their ability to talk back comes, when it does at all, only in fits and starts.  

The result is that, in a film centred on events within the Detroit riots, the vast majority of black rioters are left unnamed and voiceless.  Yet, hidden amongst the dozens of background characters, the most eloquent voice surely belonged to Rebecca Pollard, mother of 19-year-old Algiers Motel victim Auburey Pollard [8].  A year before the trial of Ronald August [9], she was interviewed by journalist John Hersey for his book, The Algiers Motel Incident.  Speaking about the police officer who would eventually be acquitted of the murder of her son, Pollard said:  

'All I want is justice done to this man.  If they don't give him justice, I wish there was some kind of way I could kill him....  I'd like to see him have the same death he gave my son - only just a little worser....  And see what they would do to me.  If I went up there right in the courtroom while they was having the trial and started in on him, I'll be damned if they wouldn't kill me right there....  

'I want justice done so bad I can taste it....  And I'm going to tell the goddam judge how I feel, if you want to know the truth about it.  I don't give a damn....  I'm going to say, "Don't turn that man loose, because he ain't got no business being free!"  If they let him get away with that death, there'll be more death.  There'll be more kids killed that are innocent....  

'I'm going to tell it.  I'm going to tell it if I have to drop dead....  I'm going to tell it.  I want the world to know.' [10]  

Marc David Jacobs

freelance arts worker

24th August 2017


Footnotes

 

[1] Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders: The New York Times Edition (hereinafter 'Kerner Report'), 1968, p 84.  The NACCD, headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, was established by President Lyndon Johnson on 28th July 1967, the day on which military troops began their withdrawal from Detroit.

 

[2] Opinions are divided as to whether the events of 23rd-27th July 1967 should be called the 'Detroit riot' or the 'Detroit rebellion'.  In opting for 'Detroit riot' throughout, I have followed both contemporary accounts and the current editorial decisions of the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News.  For a detailed exploration of the issue, see Bill McGraw, 'Riot or Rebellion? The Debate on What to Call Detroit '67', Detroit Free Press, 4th July 2017, http://www.freep.com/story/new...

 

[3] The Thomas and Williams killings are detailed in the Kerner Report, p 86 & pp 119-120; Bill McGraw, 'Before '67 Riot, Detroit Thought It Could Avoid Civil Unrest', Detroit Free Press, 15th July 2017, http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/detroit/2017/07/16/detroit-riot-civil-unrest/447217001/; and Detroit1701, 'River Rouge Park', http://www.detroit1701.org/Riv...

 

[4] Kerner Report, pp 84-86.

 

[5] In addition to the incidents detailed, Victoria W Wolcott's 'Gendered Perspectives on Detroit History' (Michigan Historical Review, Spring 2001, p 78) asserts that 'the 1967 Detroit riot was initiated by rumours that police had brutalised female patrons' during the 12th Street and Clairmount raid.

 

[6] Bernard D Headley, 'Black Political Empowerment and Urban Crime', Phylon, 3rd Quarter 1985, p 197.

 

[7] Albert Bergesen, 'Race Riots of 1967: An Analysis of Police Violence in Detroit and Newark', Journal of Black Studies, March 1982, pp 266-267.  Bergesen's analysis classifies all five of these cases - in which a total of seven people were killed - as 'personal attacks' by officials, and entirely distinct from incidents involving looting (in which 18 people were killed), accidents (seven deaths), or deaths with any other traceable cause or motive.

 

[8] Referred to in Detroit and elsewhere as 'Aubrey', Auburey was the spelling used by the Pollard family and appears in contemporary reports of the Algiers Motel killings and the subsequent police trials.

 

[9] Ronald August's name, along with those of fellow police officers David Senak and Robert Paille, was changed for the film.

 

[10] John Hersey, The Algiers Motel Incident, 1968, pp 282-285.  Hersey accepted no royalties from the book's publication, donating his share of the proceeds to a scholarship fund for African-American students.

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