Leonard Quart:|Letter From New York: Nightmare Detroit - Riot of '67

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NEW YORK — Some optimism about Detroit's future has emerged, at least in news stories and magazine pieces. There is a new hockey arena, a trolley, and a manufactured beach, an active art scene, trendy restaurants and housing under construction all over the city's downtown, midtown and nearby neighborhoods. There also have been three years without budget deficits, and the city's population is dropping much more slowly.

However, inside the city, its future is more complicated. The homicide rate remains extremely high, 25,000 crumbling houses are still standing, and on any given day, its failing school system sees about 100 classes operating without a permanent teacher because of a teacher vacancy problem. And for longtime residents the city's mini-revival raises questions about rising rent and new central city developments displacing longtime residents. The question that always rises in blighted areas when neighborhood improvements — public and private — take place is who turns out to be the ultimate losers and winners?

Despite the positive signs that exist in the Detroit of 2017, much of the city outside the center is decrepit and clearly can never return to what it was in the early 1950s. That was a time when its auto industry was flourishing and an affluent working class whose average income was 150 percent of the national one existed. For blacks, the city then had special significance. They saw Detroit as the Promised Land, a city that provided unskilled, well-paying jobs and escape from Southern poverty and virulent racism.

But its decline was imminent. Starting in the late '50s the city lost 150, 000 jobs to the suburbs, automation began to make inroads on the auto industry, and freeways began to cut through the most densely populated black neighborhoods, with little housing assistance for their displaced residents.

Mugging of city

The final blow was struck by the riots in 1967 where over five days 43 people died, of whom 33 were black and 10 white. Twelve hundred were injured, including civilians, and some of the police, National Guard troops, state troopers, and U.S army soldiers who were called in. A few thousand stores were looted or burned, 412 buildings had to be demolished, and dollar losses from arson and looting ranged from $40 to $80 million.

In the words of Coleman Young, Detroit's first black mayor, "The riot put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, and plain damn money."

Kathryn Bigelow, the white female director of the Academy Award-winning "Hurt Locker" (2009) and "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), and her scriptwriter Mark Boal make films whose strength lies in building tension with sharp editing and authentically capturing the true horror of war. She is a director whose films emphasize violent action and immediacy rather than exposition and social and political analysis.

Her new film, "Detroit," follows the pattern of her war films in providing neither an overview nor a backstory for the riots. There is no mention of the city's long history of police abuse and a black unemployment rate that was double the white one. She starts the film by dropping us into an overly aggressive police raid (Detroit's police force was 93 percent white) on a black after-hours illegal drinking club, which leads directly into burning buildings, turmoil on the streets, and violent conflict between police and angry neighborhood people.

Bigelow does not expand much screen time on capturing the chaotic street action, but wisely centers the film on reconstructing what happened at the Algiers Motel during the night of July 25-26. It's there where one of the film's central characters, a fledgling singing group's lead singer, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), and a close friend end up. There they encounter four black men and two young white women from Ohio. One of the young men had with self-destructive bravado shot a blank with a starter pistol at the Guard and police. It led to a night of torture and horror, which Bigelow intensifies by shooting in close-up in a tight space.

The three policemen who arrive are racists, who quickly line up the men and women against the wall with the white, women arousing their particular rage for being with black men. They pistol whip and beat them, and ultimately kill three innocent men.

Bigelow is less interested in the psyches of her characters than in the barbarism of the police, who are out of control with the power they wield over black men. The most vicious cop, the sociopathic Krausse (Will Poulter) revels in his capacity to intimidate and arouse fear. Other forces, like the National Guard are for the most part passive and give the policemen free rein.

Bigelow has said she made this film "to generate a conversation," and she usually succeeds, especially in her image of police taking the lives of people who present no threat, regardless of their innocence or guilt. And who ultimately pay no price.

It's police behavior that has special relevance today when the movement "Black Lives Matter," has come to the fore.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com

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