More Than a Riot Going On: A ‘Detroit’-Inspired Reading List

A Michigan State police officer searches a Detroit youth on July 24, 1967. (AP)

Reactions to Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film Detroit have been polarized, and the considerable backlash may have caused its opening weekend box office to suffer. Bigelow’s films are known for their tightly-choreographed combat scenes and their fictionalization of brutal historical events. In Detroit, Bigelow takes on the story of the Algiers Motel incident, where three young black men—Carl Cooper, Fred Temple, and Aubrey Pollard—were tortured and killed by police officers in the motel’s annex. In the early morning hours of July 26, 1967, a few days into the unrest that would eventually become known as the Detroit rebellion, the three young men, along with many others, took refuge at the motel amid a city-wide curfew. Police forces received reports of sniper fire and raided the Algiers, finding a group of black men socializing with white women. There were interrogations, humiliations, assaults, and eventually murder. No gun was ever found on the grounds of the Algiers, and the police involved were found not guilty on all charges associated with the incident.

Conversation about the film has touched on questions about who has the authority to tell what stories. Bigelow is a white woman from the West Coast who said she knew herself not to be the “ideal person” to make the movie. But she and former journalist Mark Boal, the film’s screenwriter, worked with black academics, historians, and eyewitnesses to ensure a certain level of accuracy in the story. Jelani Cobb, a historian and staff writer at The New Yorker, Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., head of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard were among those reportedly consulted.

Still, many critics bristled about the lack of depth of Detroit’s portrayal of the human beings involved in the incident. There are no black women featured prominently in the film: Though not among the casualties of the Algiers incident, black women have been agitators and organizers in every movement of black resistance in the US, and were critical participants in the community response to what happened that night.

Another point of criticism is that the film doesn’t go far enough in acknowledging that there was, in fact, a community response to the murders. Understandably outraged at the unwarranted deaths of the three teenagers, the black community hosted a tribunal at the Shrine of Black Madonna church when the police officers were acquitted and eventually got a black mayor elected. The uprisings of the last half of the 20th century—Watts, Newark, Detroit, and others-—were community responses to unjust police treatment, economic injustice, a lack of full participation in civic life. There were years of intentional struggle in Detroit, and everywhere else there were uprisings, before, during, and after the summer of ’67.

Perhaps a black filmmaker would have tackled some of this. The recent film Whose Streets takes on the uprising in Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder, and the lives of the activists seem central to its story. But it is a documentary. Perhaps Bigelow’s style does not allow for the depth many would have liked to see. She spends a full 40 minutes on the torture scenes and relies on vérité-inspired methods. I believe that it’s a delicate task to depict a kind of pain that is unresolved, that still lives. Between leaving the wound alone or staring right at it from multiple angles, I do not yet know what is best.

I am not from Detroit. One of my aunts moved there shortly after World War II following her new husband who went to look for work. She left town when their marriage ended. There is a photo of her in a Detroit restaurant that I love. It’s black and white, and she’s wearing her hair in a pageboy and a dress with softly cascading ruffles. There are four other black men and women sitting with her at a table with opulent plates cocktail and wine glasses. In that moment, they are serious and regal and glamorous black people whose resistance is embedded in their elegance.

This reading list is an attempt to think through the fullness, complexity, and beauty of Detroit.

1. “When You’ve Had Detroit” (Rollo Romig, The New Yorker, June 2014)

Romig grew up in Detroit and this essay looks at a single neighborhood, North Rosedale Park, during a single moment in time.

2. “The Summer of ’43” (Michael Jackman, Detroit Metro Times, June 2003)

The uprising of 1967 wasn’t the first violent clash of citizens in Detroit. A generation before, during the post-war economic boom, a melee ensued on the Belle Isle bridge between white mobs and black pedestrians.

3. “Motown Mastermind Behind ‘Dancing in the Street’ Recalls the 1967 Detroit Riots — When Black Folks Took to the Streets” (Kelley L. Carter, Undefeated, July 2017)

In an interview with writer Kelley Carter, songwriter, producer, and former A&R William “Mickey” Stevenson talks about how Motown became politicized in the wake of the summer of 1967.

4. “Not Tragedy, but Atrocity” (John Patrick Leary, Guernica, July 2017)

Leary, a professor at Wayne State University, provides a fact-based account of the Algiers Motel incident and how the tragic event lives on in the hearts and minds of Detroit residents in the present.

5. “Haunting Houses: An Interview with Angela Flournoy” (Jeffrey Gleaves, The Paris Review, June 2015)

Flournoy, whose 2015 novel The Turner House tells the story of a family from Detroit across generations, talks about the relationship between mundane events and political ones.

6. “The 50 Best J Dilla Songs” (Andrew Barber, Complex, February 2012)

A history and catalog of Detroit musician and producer J Dilla’s greatest work.

7. “Soul Survivor” (David Remnick, The New Yorker, April 2016)

Remnick profiles Detroit-raised Aretha Franklin and looks at the importance of her father’s church, New Bethel Baptist, in the development of the singer’s style and in the Civil Rights Movement.

9. “Detroit’s Mayoral Election Is a Test of Recovery and Legacy” (Monica Davey, The New York Times, August 2017)

The son of Detroit’s first black mayor and Michigan state senator Coleman A Young II, is running to unseat the current mayor, Mike Duggan. The two will face off in a general election on November 7.

In a city where race has sometimes defined political allegiances and is at the center of a newly released movie about civil unrest here 50 years ago, some prominent black leaders have lined up behind Mr. Duggan, pointing to the city’s movement on his watch. Among them: Benny Napoleon, the sheriff who ran against him four years ago, as well as a group of former advisers to the elder Coleman Young.

“Look, I love Detroit — I raised my children here, and I was raised here — and it’s coming back,” said Bea Ward, the chairwoman of the Wayne County Democratic Black Caucus.