Bigelow takes on Detroit in ’67, to­day

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - STEVEN ZEITCHIK

DETROIT — Tucked be­hind a sleepy tree-lined road, David Se­nak’s home gives the im­pres­sion of sub­ur­ban peace. A wel­come flag hangs from the win­dow. The gar­den is well-tended. On a re­cent af­ter­noon, young neigh­bors were hav­ing a lacrosse catch.

But the idyll con­ceals a roil­ing past. Se­nak is a sym­bol of law en­force­ment run amok. And his bid at a life of quiet anonymity — made clear via a door-slam by a com­pan­ion when a re­porter came knock­ing — may be reach­ing an end.

Fifty years ago, the for­mer Detroit po­lice­man led a con­tin­gent that — ac­cord­ing to eye­wit­ness tes­ti­mony — rounded up, in­tim­i­dated, beat and shot an in­no­cent, mostly black group dur­ing the city’s 1967 civil un­rest. The ordeal at the Al­giers Mo­tel left three young men dead and many oth­ers bat­tered. Tri­als re­sulted in ac­quit­tals or dis­missals for the three po­lice of­fi­cers and black se­cu­rity guard Melvin Dis­mukes. Se­nak and his fel­low of­fi­cers never served any jail time, and the in­ci­dent was lit­tle known out­side Detroit. In re­cent years he has led a non­de­script life in a pre­dom­i­nantly white mid­dle-class com­mu­nity about 45 min­utes out­side the city.

But the se­crecy is now melt­ing away thanks to a jolt­ing new movie from Os­car-win­ner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty).

Ti­tled Detroit, the film takes those events and, with a char­ac­ter played by young Bri­tish actor Will Poul­ter and re­named Philip Krauss, gives new ex­pres­sion to Se­nak and his co­horts’ ac­tions.

Bigelow in­fuses that sum­mer night with the ur­gent vis­cer­al­ity of her over­seas war films and the racial bold­ness of early-era Spike Lee. At a mo­ment of na­tional divi­sion — be­tween the work­ing and the wealthy, be­tween Black and Blue Lives Mat­ter move­ments —

Detroit pushes us in a new di­rec­tion. It not only of­fers a fresh read on a fa­mil­iar sad­ness but re­pro­grams the way cin­ema can process tragedy.

By por­tray­ing an All-Amer­i­can city that has re­peat­edly failed to bridge racial di­vi­sions, where wealth and poverty are sharply de­lin­eated by neigh­bor­hood and neigh­bor­hood by color, the film has an im­pact greater than its scope. Detroit not only il­lu­mi­nates the po­lice-mi­nor­ity dy­namic in a

Mid­west­ern city circa 1967 — it sheds light on ev­ery­where else right now.


“So Dis­mukes would have seen the muz­zle flash from there,” Bigelow said, ges­tur­ing to a faded of­fice build­ing on Wood­ward Av­enue as she re­ferred to a se­cu­rity guard who was at the scene that night. “And he went to get his gun, and that’s when the po­lice came around and en­tered here.”

The di­rec­tor is stand­ing on the site of what was once the Al­giers Mo­tel, where the black men — Aubrey Pol­lard, Carl Cooper and Fred Tem­ple — were killed that night.

Reteam­ing with her long­time screen­writer Mark Boal, Bigelow starts the story at the be­gin­ning. The be­gin­ning be­gin­ning. A hope­ful black mi­gra­tion from the South to Detroit, the film re­lates in an an­i­mated se­quence, soon yields to eco­nomic de­spair, seg­re­gated ge­og­ra­phy and frayed re­la­tions with a mostly white po­lice force. The riot/re­bel­lion is seen in this con­text; when the first items are taken from a store on July 23, it comes off not as wan­ton loot­ing but as the pipe-burst of decades of backed-up re­sent­ment.

The movie soon arcs to the early hours of July 26 as told by com­pre­hen­sive — if at times com­pet­ing — ac­counts in court pro­ceed­ings, news­pa­per sto­ries, po­lice re­ports and (more loosely, as rights were not sold) a book from Pulitzer win­ner John Hersey. Es­sen­tially on that evening, three white po­lice­men — char­ac­ters based on the 23-year-old Se­nak as well as the now-de­ceased Ron­ald Au­gust and Robert Paille — storm the an­nex af­ter gun­shots are said to be com­ing from its di­rec­tion.


There they im­pose a reign of ter­ror on about a half-dozen black men and two white women in a pu­ta­tive search for a gun. (None was ever found.) They make the civil­ians face a wall for hours, with Krauss in par­tic­u­lar threat­en­ing, mock­ing and at­tack­ing them as part of a vi­o­lent power-trip. (He and other of­fi­cers use a highly cruel in­ter­ro­ga­tion tac­tic known as the “death game.”) Also present, and morally con­flicted, is the black se­cu­rity guard, Dis­mukes, played by John Boyega.

The scar­ring runs deep even for those who sur­vive. That in­cludes an hon­ored Viet­nam Vet­eran named Greene, based on the real-life Robert Greene (An­thony Mackie), who’d come to Detroit from Ken­tucky look­ing for work; a band mate of Tem­ple’s in Mo­town act the Dra­mat­ics named Cleve­land Larry Reed (Al­gee Smith); and two women from Ohio, Julie Hy­sell (Han­nah Mur­ray) and Karen Mal­loy (Kait­lyn Dever), stay­ing at the Al­giers.

Bigelow says she made the movie be­cause she felt events in Fer­gu­son, Mo., left her no moral choice.

“The Michael Brown ac­quit­tal had just come in, and like many peo­ple I had the feel­ing ‘is this jus­tice? How can this hap­pen?’” she said at an ear­lier meet­ing in New York, re­fer­ring to a grand jury’s de­ci­sion not to in­dict po­lice of­fi­cer Dar­ren Wil­son, who had been charged with shoot­ing Brown. “And then I heard this story and it made me re­al­ize there was in­equity that needed to see the light of day. It hap­pened 50 years ago and yet it felt con­tem­po­rary.”

She and Boal ap­plied the film­mak­ing tech­niques and dirt-un­der-their-fin­ger­nails re­search of Hurt Locker and Zero Dark. In­deed, the movie is in a sense a third part in a tril­ogy, a story of Amer­i­cans at war abroad lead­ing to Amer­i­cans at war to pro­tect the home­land, fi­nally giv­ing way to an Amer­ica at war with it­self.

The spot where the Al­giers Mo­tel stood is just an over­grown field now, one more hol­lowed-out space in a neigh­bor­hood that has fallen on hard times. There is not even a plaque.

Bigelow would visit this site of­ten in pre­pro­duc­tion, even as she wound up shoot­ing in Mas­sachusetts for tax rea­sons. “It gave us ground­ing. I would just come here with the art depart­ment or the cam­era depart­ment and bring it all to life in my head.

It’s hal­lowed ground, re­ally.” Then she swiveled her head around the in­nocu­ous sur­round­ings.

“This is the site of a hor­ri­ble crime,” she said. “And you’d never know it.”


Julie De­laney, nee Hy­sell, needed no mon­u­ment to jog her mem­ory. As she vis­ited the Al­giers site one morn­ing last week, she re­counted the de­tails as if they hap­pened yes­ter­day.

“One of the of­fi­cers said ‘put your hands up’ and told us to stand up and then he just whacked me up­side the head,” she said, de­scrib­ing how the cops stormed into Greene’s room af­ter she and Mal­loy took shel­ter there.

De­laney, then a teenager, had joined up with Mal­loy and fol­lowed some bands to Detroit that sum­mer of 1967. They were at the Al­giers be­cause it cost barely $10 a night. Now in her late 60s and a hair­dresser on Hol­ly­wood sets, she had come from her home in the South for a rare visit back to where the trauma had oc­curred.

She took it all in. “Right there is where you reg­is­tered. And this was the pool. And this was the breeze­way be­tween the main build­ing and the an­nex, where it all hap­pened.”

She let the mem­o­ries fil­ter through. “Peo­ple were beg­ging for their lives. I just kept think­ing ‘they killed three peo­ple, and there’s one per­son they haven’t taken, then I’m next.’ I re­mem­ber the voices of the cops yelling, again and again and again.”

She said, “You know, what hap­pens in the movie is like The Smurfs com­pared to what re­ally hap­pened.”

Dis­mukes said the bru­tal­ity of the film only hints at what he saw too. “I just want peo­ple to know how vi­o­lent it was — it was so much worse than peo­ple think,” he said.

But what to do with this bru­tal­ity? Is a sit­u­a­tion made bet­ter by sim­ply know­ing about it? Is the pe­riod lens that makes it palat­able to an au­di­ence also an ob­fus­cat­ing force? Ike McKin­non, one of the few black Detroit po­lice of­fi­cers in 1967 and later a po­lice chief and deputy mayor, said that much has im­proved since the riot, par­tic­u­larly with in­te­gra­tion of the force, but that the city hasn’t over­come its strug­gles — “that magic com­bi­na­tion of black and white, of po­lice and civil­ians.”

Mackie, who plays Greene, says hon­esty is lack­ing ev­ery­where. “One thing we haven’t had is an open con­ver­sa­tion about the re­la­tion­ship,” he said. “About the fear and ha­tred black men have to­ward the po­lice and the fear and re­sis­tance cops have to black men. Po­lice and black men are in a mar­riage. And un­less you’re open, a mar­riage doesn’t work.”

Detroit is an ex­treme ex­am­ple of the seg­re­ga­tion — eco­nomic, cul­tural, phys­i­cal — that di­vides the coun­try more broadly. Of­fi­cers’ abil­ity in 1967 not only to com­mit the crimes but get away with them con­tin­ues to echo ev­ery­where. Only the most un­plugged would find no con­nec­tion to cur­rent events; only the most anes­thetized will leave the the­ater un­jarred.

“I’m not try­ing to be au­thor­i­tar­ian and tell peo­ple how to feel, but anger is an ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse,” Boal said. “This is some­thing meant to be grap­pled with.”


But with that grap­pling could come crit­i­cism. Bigelow does say there are mo­ments of fic­tion, and Boal notes in­stances of “pure screen­writ­ing.” Some facts are con­tested within ac­counts; oth­ers were changed for the screen. Does a disclaimer at the end suf­fi­ciently cover fic­tional ma­nip­u­la­tions in an os­ten­si­bly true story?

What’s more, does the film make out­liers the norm, al­leg­ing a dis­ease of vi­o­lent racism without prov­ing it? Cin­ema is an emo­tional medium and the is­sue of po­lice bru­tal­ity at bot­tom an em­piric prob­lem — can an ap­proach that em­braces the for­mer ad­dress the lat­ter? The ques­tions are as plenty as the ac­counts of that night. In­jus­tice rarely rings out without in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

Robert Greene was never found in the mak­ing of the film. Bigelow’s team couldn’t track him down, and Mackie never spoke to the vet­eran. Hersey’s book had him giv­ing an in­ter­view about the Al­giers in­ci­dent as he re­turned to his na­tive Ken­tucky. Per­haps he will sur­face with the re­lease of the film; per­haps he has slipped away in the haze of trauma. For now, at least, he re­mains a mys­tery.

Ex­cept pub­lic records show that a man match­ing his name and age had in re­cent years lived at an ad­dress in Detroit, in the hard­scrab­ble black neigh­bor­hood of Gran­dale.

On a blaz­ingly hot re­cent Satur­day, an el­derly neigh­bor sought refuge on a porch. Many of the houses, in­clud­ing the one be­long­ing to Robert Greene, were un­oc­cu­pied — bombed out, boarded up and fall­ing apart. Some had al­ready burned down or were razed.

Whether the house was oc­cu­pied by the Greene who sur­vived the Al­giers in­ci­dent or an­other cit­i­zen with the same name was in a way be­side the point. The ri­ots are not a dis­tant mem­ory here, the stuff of pe­riod films to com­mem­o­rate with pre­mieres at re­stored the­aters in gen­tri­fy­ing down­towns. They are alive, real, present, and just a few dozen miles from Se­nak’s well-man­i­cured home. Long af­ter the sur­vivors left the Al­giers, the di­vi­sions of that night re­main and per­sist.

Di­rec­tor Kathryn Bigelow gives notes to ac­tors in­clud­ing Will Poul­ter, who plays the rogue po­lice of­fi­cer Krauss in the base­don-a-true-story Detroit.

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