It just so happened last week my daughter reminded me the Dramatics were on “Unsung.” Those of you who may be unfamiliar with Unsung may do yourself a favor as it is a television program which chronicles the life of African-American entertainers. It provides a snapshot of how they started, how they reached fame and for many how they stumbled and eventually fell. Then for the lucky few, it shows how they got back up and live (or lived) a productive life. I quickly turned it on and almost forgot the group started in Detroit.
Coincidently, the movie “Detroit” came out yesterday, so having a little free time I decided to go solo and check it out. After watching the movie and upon leaving to try to catch up with Lanie, my initial rating was a 7 on a scale of 1 – 10. However, after some serious reflection and in fairness I increased my rating to a 8.
Not a documentary
It is not a documentary but a portrayal of a real life story; the Detroit Riots of 1967. However, more important the plot or key storyline focuses on the horrific incident and overt law enforcement brutality lashed out at those who were staying at the Algier’s Motel. Notice, I mentioned law enforcement as during the riots that cadre included the local police, the state police and the national guard.
Contrary to what some believe, folk who live in a community and subsequently unleash their frustration resulting in a “riot” and where damage is done to their immediate area do so not out of stupidity……..but from years of frustration, oppression, public policy and other factors that reach a boiling point.
The black migration to the industrialized north
As a historian I really appreciated the opening of how the black migration from the south to the industrial north occurred. More important it focused on the construct of racism and how the strategy of white flight occurred. As blacks were achieving civil rights gains which allowed more movement, those whites who fled urban cores found a new haven in the newly created “suburbs” As they left resources went with them. The core plea of blacks seeking integration was not a basic attempt to “be white” or transition to a “white lifestyle.” Instead it was the demand for whites to integrate the resources, the power and the responsibilities.
Many are steeped with denial in justifying why them and their families left various areas. The bottom line centers on race so you don’t have to be a history major to understand why and how this became a popular practice in communities such as Detroit and many places in the United States where blacks were moving in to try to benefit from the economic uplift made possible by the “industrial revolution.”
The white flight dynamic or fleecing communities phenomenon reminds me of a great parallel Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered at the last sermon he would preach, which was Sunday, April 1, 1968, “It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps!”
The film allows you to see the reaction created from the riots. The backdrop will take additional studying for you to fully grasp the theme.
Fast forward to 1967 and the many dreams deferred as those blacks who moved in did not experience the paradise they expected. Instead they were marginalized and many dreams were cut short. Worse, the very police departments who had a “protect and serve” protocol transitioned their behavior to an occupied-like force, thus fueling much distrust and anger from community folk.
The raid which was the focus of the riot was the type of incident which was quite common. As a matter of fact, the police didn’t expect anything to get out of hand. Instead this time it did and the community responded with anger and the frustration boiled over to start the outburst which lit the flame for the riots.
The director is to be commended for having the courage to tackle the subject. Although the movie is a bit lengthy, I would suspect that is because there is so much ground to cover. Also, and a key point so you are clear is the movie is not a documentary so there is some creative license such as the ’72 bug being featured in a scene which was supposed to reflect 1967. Also, there are numerous questions you are left to ponder. Why did the person who shot the starting pistol run? Why didn’t those who knew he shot the pistol simply fess up to avoid the subsequent harassment, brutality and for some death which they suffered?
Yet, even in 2017, you can see some of the same behavior carried out by law enforcement embraced today. No doubt police are needed for public safety. Bad people do prey on good communities to wreak havoc and carry out their destruction . Yet the movie speaks to attitudes. If relates how you can experience sheer discrimination and hostility of people simply because they are different from institutions designed to help people lead a productive life. The denial, the cover-up and the brazen nature of those who simply lack basic respect for humanity is seen.
Fiction is fiction but this is a movie which hopefully inspires candid discussion. It is a movie featuring many black actors portraying a critical incident in the black community, but the movie can’t be relegated as a movie just for blacks ? It is a movie all should take the time to see as it is not about “police-bashing” but it portrays the environment of how things were and unfortunately there is pain. Some don’t want to be reminded of what happened. Then for others it rips the scab off of a wound which was thought to have healed.
More can be found here.
If you found the movie Detroit interesting and you seriously would like to have more facts I recommend two solid sources.
Eyes on the Prize is the seminal documented source which chronicles black life during that period. The series is split into sections. In addition to footage there is also a companion book.
The book – The book lends about 30 pages to the Detroit issue. It is packed with eye-witnesses and serves as an excellent source.
The footage. American Playhouse rebroadcast the Eyes on the Prize series and the good news is their clips are available via youtube. Here is the specific clip which features Detroit (about 33 minutes into the footage).
Postscript – I am lucky to take up residence in what is referred to the “inner city” or “urban area.” The good news is we have choices so especially for movies such as “Detroit” I started to just trek the three miles downtown to the Regal theater. Luckily I came to my senses and headed to the Rave theater in the Crenshaw community. I was pleased to see the movie theater packed. More important it was full of folk who are a bit older than me who more than likely lived during the period of the Movie, as they probably were in their early teens or early twenties. The reason this is important is to experience the visceral reaction from the various scenes communicated in the call/response found in audiences that are predominantly black. Some might find the reaction irritating or “why don’t they shut up” but it’s that reaction which helps you truly understand what the director is attempting to show you.