In the Heat of Detroit: 50 Years of Tension

Kathryn Bigelow's film is the latest stoking of a fire that's been burning for half a century

    Once again, Detroit is under siege.

    Fifty years ago this summer (1967), the city erupted in a wave of riots, arson, and violence that swept through large swaths of Detroit, the culmination of roiling racial tensions that had been simmering for years.

    The flash point was an early Sunday morning (July 23) police raid on a black-owned blind pig, where cops arrested everyone inside the packed club. As news traveled and a crowd gathered, the scene degenerated into a full-fledged riot that would spread throughout the city for most of the following week. By late Monday night (July 24), Michigan Governor George W. Romney (father of former US presidential candidate Mitt Romney) called in the Michigan Army National Guard, followed by President Lyndon B. Johnson deploying the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to help quell the violence, which continued for most of the week.

    It was amidst that civil unrest on Tuesday, July 25, that the horrific incident at the Algiers Hotel occurred after police found a group of black men and white women, just teenagers, hanging out together in one of the rooms. It’s the story being addressed in the heart of the new Kathryn Bigelow-helmed movie, Detroit. The film has already generated waves of controversy, in part from critics appalled with such a traumatic and deep-rooted event being boiled down into a summertime cinema “thriller.”


    “After spending the better part of three years covering and watching countless news stories with the same plot — black person is unarmed, black person is killed by police officer, police officer is not guilty, racism wins, black people are forced to live on through the trauma and confusion — I’ve become weary of the recurring violence and over-policing of black bodies,” explained writer Danielle Young in her recent piece, “I Walked Out of Detroit Because WTF, Man?!

    “At that moment, I’d had enough. And if you go see this film, you will likely feel the same,” she added. “It’s the equivalent of watching the Facebook Live video of Philando Castile taking his final breath … for two hours.”

    It’s a growing sentiment among frustrated native Detroiters, with another critic labeling the film as pure exploitation.


    “What’s worst of all is what might have been done if a real spirit of inclusion had prevailed, giving voice to those who are heard the least,” wrote Danielle Eliska Lyle in the Metro Times. “Despite Bigelow and (writer Mark) Boal’s grand intentions, Detroit represents a monumental failure.”

    Back in the actual summer of 1967, moviegoers were shocked by their own big-screen depiction on America’s fraught racial dynamics when In the Heat of the Night hit theaters across the country with a stunning wallop. The film debuted on August 2nd of that year, just one week after the riots in Detroit.

    In the Heat of the Night stars Sidney Poitier as Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs working on a murder case that takes him into mid-‘60s small-town Mississippi. It would go on to win a slew of Academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Poitier’s co-star, Rod Steiger, as local police chief Bill Gillespie.


    The movie’s most notorious moment comes when Tibbs and Gillespie are questioning main suspect, wealthy plantation owner Eric Endicott. Tibbs attempts to interrogate Endicott, who’s so offended by the very notion of being held accountable by a black man that he strikes Tibbs across the face, who slaps him back. It was an image so shocking in 1967 America that it was dubbed “the slap heard ‘round the world,” by the film’s director, Norman Jewison.

    “When we rehearsed the slap, we always stopped and said, ‘bang, bang, bang’ or ‘slap, slap.’ Because it hurts to get slapped that hard. I took Larry Gates aside, the chap who played Endicott, and had to teach him since he wasn’t a trained film actor, he was a theatrical actor,” Jewison recalled in 2011. “I could see Larry was afraid of slapping Sidney. But Sidney I didn’t have to direct. He was a film actor. I said, ‘I want you to hit him hard enough so that he feels it. In other words, you can’t hold back.’ I remember working on this technically, trying to get both actors to the point where they’re not afraid of hurting each other. That was the main thing. I think we did it in two takes, and I think we used the first. Because there’s something about being caught off guard that was essential to the moment. Nobody expected him to slap Sidney.”

    The racial tension on the screen was a direct reflection of the state of America at the time, and the movie has become a touchstone for the moment when the country was forced to confront the growing civil rights movement and the resulting consequences.


    “The timing was perfect for this film. The mood of the country is important when you’re dealing with any kind of political situation,” Jewison explained. “Race relations were on the TV screens of America, and race relations were stretched to a breaking point. And this was a film about race relations.”

    Race relations in Detroit had hit a tipping point by 1967, with many pointing to the riots of that summer as the impetus behind the notorious phenomenon of “white flight,” with white residents abandoning the city for the northern suburbs and beyond.

    “It didn’t help. It was the nail in the coffin. But that coffin was being crafted long before the riots,” argued longtime Detroit writer and professor Harvey Ovshinsky in a recent Metro Times piece. “The riots just made it official, and easy for people to say, ‘See? I told you so.’


    “The disinvestment started much sooner than that,” Ovshinsky continued. “It was the poster child for leaving Detroit. It didn’t help. Trust me: Mythology has its sources in truth. If anybody had any concerns or doubts or fears or worries about the future of the city, they were justified and then resolved in their heads.”

    Another major factor was the decimation of the American auto industry and the systematic shuttering of countless factories that had for decades provided secure jobs for a massive number of Detroiters. The aftermath (expedited by the mortgage crisis of the late ‘00s) sent the city into an economic downward spiral, one that would ultimately result in Detroit filing for the largest municipal bankruptcy — upwards of $20 million — in the history of the United States in 2013.

    Just four years past bankruptcy, and 50 years after the incidents depicted in Detroit left it a broken shell of what it once was, the city is experiencing what some would call a renaissance and what others see as cold, opportunistic gentrification.


    From wealthy businessmen like Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of the mortgage giant Quicken Loans and majority owner of the NBA franchise Cleveland Cavaliers, down to the waves of new residents moving in to take advantage of the rock-bottom overhead afforded in Detroit, one of the common factors across the board is that those people are mostly white.

    “We have yet to hear the story of a revitalized Detroit neighborhood where those shaping the vision, leading the work, and benefiting from the changes are black,” pointed out Detroit native and urban planning professional Lauren Hood, who has worked in numerous capacities to see the city return to its former glory, in Model D earlier this year. “Many of the programs created to stimulate development are designed to benefit these newcomers. It may not be intentional, but when your program requires a certain credit score, a certain level of educational attainment, a certain level of income, or the knowledge that such programs even exist, the program becomes inaccessible to the majority population in the city. Namely, black folks.”

    “Indeed, there is a Detroit that is a priority for the rich and well connected, and then there is a Detroit where the vast majority of the people lament a different existence marked by misery,” positioned an article in the Guardian earlier this year that details how, as of the 2014 census, more than 39 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. “And if the conditions of the majority remain the same, how then has the bankruptcy – which shaved away a chunk of the city’s debts and allowed the municipal government to start on a clean slate – changed their lives for the better?”


    In the meantime, Detroit is playing at movie houses across the country, depicting a moment in time when the real city burned, 43 actual lives were lost, thousands more were injured, and moviegoers were genuinely stunned to see a black man slap a white man across the face on the big screen.

    For Julie Hysell, one of the white girls brutalized by police during the Algiers Hotel incident back in 1967 and now a 68-year-old mother of four and grandmother of five, Detroit represents a grim sense of closure. Working as an advisor to Bigelow throughout filming of the movie, watching the most traumatic night of her life played out by actors in front of a camera crew was a wrenching experience. Still, she’s a staunch supporter of the final product.

    “I don’t think I processed a lot of what happened until making this movie,” she told Variety, admitting that she still freezes up at the sight of police car lights. “I wonder: Is this why I drank and have been in AA for 22 years? Is this why I’ve been married three times? Did I have PTSD? I felt guilty because I was a white person and the black people were the ones who got killed. If we’d been two black girls, maybe none of this would have happened.”


    In the same way that In the Heat of the Night director Jewison recently said that his film is “just as relevant today. I had hoped our country would have made more progress,” Hysell is also crushed at how little things have advanced in the decades since Detroit burned and she suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of her supposed protectors.

    “I’m shocked that 50 years later this is still happening,” she lamented, referencing the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray by police. “I’ve tried to raise my kids and my grandkids with the idea that everybody should be treated equal, no matter your color or your sexual preference or whatever. Everybody’s a person. You don’t go around shooting people.”