Tom Sugrue on what the movie Detroit gets right and wrong.

Why Detroit Erupted—and What Kathryn Bigelow’s Movie Gets Right and Wrong About Its History

Why Detroit Erupted—and What Kathryn Bigelow’s Movie Gets Right and Wrong About Its History

The cities of today and tomorrow.
Aug. 14 2017 5:56 PM

Why Detroit Erupted

And what Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about 1967 gets right and wrong about its complicated history of civic abuse and unrest.

Laz Alonso and Benz Veal in Detroit (2017)
Laz Alonso and Benz Veal in Detroit.

Annapurna Pictures

The long, heated summers of the 1960s are seared into the American imagination: commercial corridors in central cities reduced to ruin, tanks in the streets, and the angry release of pent-up disaffection as the long-suffering black populations of numerous cities rose up.

All of this is captured in Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie, Detroit, which dramatizes one of the bloodiest instances of civil violence in the 1960s. The film centers around what is known as the Algiers Motel incident, a horrific instance of police brutality and murder in the midst of wider chaos.

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Bigelow’s Detroit has been criticized for focusing on an extended scene of torture at the expense of that summer’s larger story about activism, unrest, and frustrated dreams. The film opens with an animated depiction of the Great Migration—based on Jacob Lawrence’s famous artwork—and then jumps to the police raid on an after-hours bar that sparked the five days of riots. Then it settles into the sickening scene at the Algiers Motel and Manor House, where police brutally interrogated a group of people who’d been taking shelter in the building about the possible presence of a sniper in their midst. After hours of torture, three young black men were killed.

New York University’s Tom Sugrue, a native of Detroit, attended the film’s premiere at the city’s legendary Fox Theater. He is the author of an essential work about the city’s history, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, which charts Detroit race relations from the end of World War II through the unrest of 1967, the year of the city’s riots. The book definitively shows that many of the forces that would eventually gut Detroit, reducing its population by more than half (and still falling), had been set in motion decades before the unrest—which conveyers of conventional wisdom have often blamed for the city’s decline.

Sugrue and I recently discussed the larger context of the Detroit riots, the history of racial violence in the Motor City, and the factors he wishes Bigelow’s film had depicted. Our interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Jake Blumgart: What did you think of Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie?

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Tom Sugrue: I say this with all humility because I’m not a film critic and I don’t produce for a mass audience. But it’s a Hollywood production, and I think Bigelow left out some really important dimensions.

I found the focus on what happens in the Algiers Motel to be important, but the aftermath of what happened is also important. The trials were ruthlessly compressed to the single trial up in Mason [a suburb where an all-white jury was allowed to decide the case against the offending officers]. The role of the motel incident and the events of 1967 in mobilizing a black politics of resistance in Detroit, especially around questions of policing, was underdeveloped.

One of the most interesting post-1967 events was the people’s tribunal, an alternative trial of the police in the motel put on by black power, anti-police brutality, and civil rights activists in Detroit. It was really dramatic, and one of the regular attendees included Rosa Parks, who was living in Detroit at the time and closely affiliated with the black power movement in the late 1960s. That story of a challenge to police brutality and power was absent.

That would have made a richer film, but based on Bigelow’s earlier movies, she isn’t big on legal drama and is much more interested in torture and terror.

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Even beyond the central horror of the set piece at the Algiers Motel, the film repeatedly emphasizes just how trigger happy the forces of law and order were. The vast majority of the riot’s 43 deaths were at the hands of government agents of various kinds.

Thirty-four of the 43 deaths were at the hands of law enforcement officials or the National Guard. Only one person was killed by the paratroopers [whom President Lyndon Johnson sent in].

Was this kind of death toll, mostly black people being killed by the police, normal for the urban unrest of the 1960s?

Yes. But understand that most of the deaths in the long, hot summers of the 1960s happened in a relatively small number of cities. Newark, Watts, and Detroit counted for the lion’s share of deaths, while in the summer of 1967 alone there were 163 incidents of rebellions, uprising, civil disorder, whatever you want to call it. Most of those didn’t involve any deaths.

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I thought it particularly notable that the opening of the movie, using the famous artwork of Jacob Lawrence, made sure to make note of pervasive job and housing discrimination that had been occurring since the Great Migration—and that white flight had already begun in earnest well before the riots. That narrative, that you put forward in your book, runs counter to the conventional wisdom that it was the riots themselves that spurred white flight and divestment.

In Detroit in particular, today there is a lot more recognition of the fact that the city’s troubles date to well before 1967. That said, lots of journalists and popular commenters still truck in the stale conventional wisdom that 1967 was the beginning of the end. I think that animated introduction of the movie did a good job of capturing, in a compelling shorthand way, a lot of the major themes of urban history scholarship from the last 20 years.

I would have liked to see more recognition in that section of the importance of Detroit as a center for African American activism. 1967 didn’t emerge out of a vacuum but in some ways grew out of a 20-year movement of racial equality and justice in Detroit that focused among other things on policing and exploitative neighborhood businesses in African American communities. And those were the major targets of the folks who took to the streets in Detroit in 1967.

There’s an important backstory that’s more than segregation and discrimination; it’s exploitation and systemic violence and predation that was afflicting those communities before 1967. Bigelow captured some of that by showing the common policing practice in Detroit leading up to 1967, particularly in the late 1950s when the city instituted really aggressive policing tactics, like stopping and frisking African American men.

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What were the other circumstances that laid the groundwork for the unrest of 1967? It’s easy to see why Bigelow would focus on societal trends that are easier to dramatize, like police brutality, but how did forces like capital flight and residential segregation contribute?

Detroit’s long-established residential segregation played a critical role. The neighborhoods at the epicenter of the uprising of 1967 were places where African American residents had little contact with whites outside of shopkeepers and law enforcement officials. Detroit’s police department in 1967 was 95 percent white. Most officers didn’t have any substantive experience living with African Americans because of the intense patterns of racial segregation. They weren’t socializing with African Americans, playing baseball with them, going to church with them; they weren’t drinking at the same bars or having block parties with them.

There was a nearly complete separation and as a consequence a really deep ignorance of African American life in Detroit on the part of the overwhelmingly white police force. That separation provided really fertile ground for stereotypes to flourish and for prejudice to intensify.

Can you provide more context about those who participated in the civil violence of 1967? As I understand it, most of the rioters were young black men. What were the specific challenges they faced that didn’t affect young white men or young black men a generation before?

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One thing to remember that pretty much all the studies of the uprisings of 1967 showed was that the folks who took to the streets weren’t at the very bottom of the economic ladder. It wasn’t the poorest or the most marginal. It was folks who were slightly better off and slightly better educated and more tied into the city’s labor market than the poorest residents.

Part of the conventional wisdom of 1967 is that this was a revolt of the very bottom, the folks who were the most left out. That wasn’t the case. That said, African American men in Detroit experienced a great deal of economic precarity, even those who had a decent education and connection to the city’s labor market. African Americans were still confined to the city’s most insecure jobs and often the least pleasant jobs. But unemployment rates in Detroit were relatively low in 1967, certainly in comparison to today. I think part of it was expectations. In a city that had long been at the epicenter of one of the most powerful industries in the world and had a large and vibrant economy, the fact that African Americans had jobs was part of the story—but the fact they had the worst jobs is a critical factor to keep in mind.

Discrimination in the workplace was still rife in Detroit in the 1960s, despite the opening of opportunities to African American workers and despite civil rights legislation. And there was a great deal of resentment that the benefits of the city’s industrial economy weren’t being distributed equally across racial lines.

In your introduction to John Hersey’s book The Algiers Motel Incident, you write that between 1948 and 1967 Detroit lost nearly 130,000 manufacturing jobs. That’s another historical event people often think occurred later, but deindustrialization wasn’t just a product of the 1970s and 1980s. As you show, it really started happening almost immediately after World War II.

Exactly. The disappearance of jobs from Detroit fell particularly hard among younger African American men. The jobs that were disappearing were the first rung on the manufacturing ladder, which required few skills and had few barriers to entry. These provided significant opportunity for their parents’ generation, for African Americans migrating from the South in the World War II era and immediately afterward. Everyone in Detroit regardless of race is being affected by this restructuring, but its effects are particularly hard on unskilled African American workers.

To put it differently, the significant reality of the auto industry is that it’s leaving Detroit when there isn’t any significant international competition, well before the oil shocks of the 1970s caused real trouble for the auto industry. Manufacturing is already picking up and decamping for other parts of the United States and the world during that period of the unchallenged supremacy of the American auto industry.

Another thing I wanted to touch on from your book, that provides the context to the 1967 civil unrest, is the persistent violence that met black families trying to move into white neighborhoods in the postwar years. Why is that violent white resistance still unrecognized?

Recognizing that narrative really demands coming to terms with white culpability for the intense residential segregation and racial polarization in metropolitan Detroit. That’s a story many folks would prefer to sweep under the rug. Detroit had two genuine race riots during World War II. Both were pitched attacks on African Americans by whites.

After the war, white Detroiters organized into one of the most powerful grassroots urban movements of the period, the so-called homeowners’ rights movement to protect the racial homogeneity of their neighborhoods by any means necessary. That included putting pressure on elected officials to keep affordable housing out of predominantly white neighborhoods. It also meant organizing vigilante activities to resist African Americans who were the first to move in, signaling the high price they would pay if they moved onto white turf.

Combing through the records of civil rights organizations, government agencies, and the African American press, I found more than 200 violent incidents that accompanied the first movements of African Americans into formerly white neighborhoods. White Detroiters sent a very strong signal to black Detroiters to not cross these invisible racial lines.

Another dimension of that is the city’s police turned a blind eye toward vandalism and attacks on black property by whites. Often police would be dispatched to the sites of the protests, and then mysteriously late at night with cop cars stationed outside, windows would still be broken. Many of Detroit’s white police officers were sympathetic with white homeowners who wanted to protect their neighborhood from racial encroachment.

If you think of the totality of African American resentment toward the city’s white police force, the role of the police in turning a blind eye toward racial violence is a really important dimension of the story.

Any final thoughts on Bigelow’s movie and the uprising of 1967?

One other part of the uprising, which would be hard for the film to convey as well, is the toll that urban renewal, highway construction, and looting in the summer of 1967 had on a couple generations of black business people. It’s devastating to African American capital.

Most shopkeepers in cities like Detroit rented the buildings they had businesses in. A lot of the buildings were still owned by whites who fled the neighborhood but kept their investments in real estate. Renters didn’t get reimbursement when their businesses were displaced by urban renewal. So, when properties were condemned then demolished, the property owners got reimbursed for the loss of their property. But if you run a neighborhood bar or barbershop, you can’t just pick up and move four miles away and expect you can just get all your clients back.

To start a whole business over from scratch when you aren’t being compensated for the loss because you don’t own the building? So when the Paradise Valley neighborhood in Detroit is blasted away for the construction of a major arterial freeways and then when looting and burning guts a lot of the thriving black businesses, including on 12th Street where the rebellion began.

That’s the story of Melvin Dismukes [played by John Boyega], a security guard standing inside a building during the riots, or of folks writing “Soul Brother” on their shop windows hoping that would turn away looters and arsonists. These are folks desperately trying to hold on to their fragile investments in these neighborhoods. And the long-term effects were devastating to black shopkeepers and business owners.

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