Sunday, August 20, 2017

Detroit, the Movie, Shoehorned into an Undeserved Context (Because I'm Like That)

Today I went to the theater and watched the movie Detroit.  It occurred to me after watching the film that we should painstakingly drag up historically ugly incidents, regardless of how they make us feel, in order to remember them and learn from them. 

The movie attempts to document one of the ugliest of the incidents that took place during the riots of that hot summer of 1967.  It is one of many ugly stories contained within those several days of smoke and fire and bullets and bricks.  And blood.

But why make such a film when the producers and director and actors must have known that delving into such a project would open old wounds?   The 1960s, we hope today, are far removed from today's modern society where, more or less, people of different skin tones and hair textures can mix and mingle with one another without creating great tension, fear and violence.

If that is the case, and most people would say that it is, then why make it?  Would it not be better to just move along?

What then is to be gained?

I'm certain people of different proud races and of different experiences could have different reactions to the film.  A swastika wearing hammer skin might cheer for a racist and corrupted police officer while a BLM sympathizer might become ever more motivated to distrust police and call for the frying of more "bacon."  These are fringe people in fringe movements and do not speak for a vast majority of individuals in this country.

I too came away with my own thoughts.

During that summer of 1967 I was but nine years old and had not yet entered the fourth grade.  Northern Michigan, where I grew up, was 180 long miles from the tendrils of smoke that trailed across a sky easily visible to fans at Tiger Stadium. 

I'm not certain I even have any direct memories of the '67 riots as it occurred.  We didn't have 24 hour news channels in those days and I'm not even sure if we had a working television at that time in my life.  It was summer, I was probably playing Wiffle Ball or catching crickets. 

So, all I know about it today is what I've gathered from reading, listening to other people talk about it, looking at some of the blackened storefronts many years ago, and now watching this movie.  Many of the landmarks of the riots were destroyed in the riots themselves, and many others, such as the Algiers Motel itself, have been removed in the time since.  Memories fade, oral history dies, and soon enough only the hardened documentation remains. 

Now, ratcheted up by the Charlottesville incident where some Nazi goons who supposedly demonstrated to protect monuments that honor heroes of the old south, we have many others demanding that these same old monuments (and others with much more dubious attachments to racism) be relocated to museums or destroyed outright--their existence and location seemingly a cause of great discomfort for those that view or visit.

I certainly understand this sentiment and perhaps some of this relocation (only) could still serve the purpose of remembrance and knowledge.  However, I'm not so certain that discomfort is altogether a bad thing here.

Monuments themselves become a part of history.    Nathan Bedford Forrest, a southern general and an early member of the Ku Klux Klan, has had dozens of monuments raised in his honor over the years (not to mention a few pointed white hats.)  Should they be toppled and destroyed, or simply relocated to a museum that documents the Civil War? 

My opinion might not be worth a lot given my age, color, and ignorance, but an art historian might use this occasion to say the fact that such monuments might have been erected to honor Forrest as late as the 1920s or 1930s or 1940s, (or even 2013!) could also tell us something about certain people in this country who were alive in the 1860s and afterward feeling Forrest worthy of honor. And why they honored him.

Rail against these statues and monuments all you want, but if every one of them is removed I don't believe one person's life will be enriched except for those perhaps who might enjoy a beautiful flower bed or park bench that occupies the space in its stead.  But expose us to a monument and the history of the monument and we all might learn a little bit.  Ugly facts are still ugly, and the whole story, from beginning to end, is still the story.

Perhaps this could be the reason behind the making of a movie like Detroit after all--intentionally looking for old wounds and poking them to see if there is still associated pain and discomfort.  Perhaps poking particularly hard to cause pain and discomfort. 

It is a good movie but it is not a movie that makes you feel good. 

Don't destroy it.   Watch it for what it is.


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