Kathryn Bigelow’s Moral Parable

Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit turns a deep-rooted urban rebellion into a “race riot.”

Scene from Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit. Annapurna Pictures

Filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow has a clear ideological vision. In her movies about the war on terror, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and the Detroit Rebellion, spectacular violence, lawlessness, rogue agents, and moral failure all play central roles. Issues of political economy become, at best, footnotes.

Detroit, her most recent film, presents the city’s 1967 uprising as an utterly chaotic event, where irrational violence and racial enmity reigned. In typical Hollywood fashion, Bigelow turns a political event into a moral parable: victimized, angry black youth face off against rabidly racist white police officers.

This version of events isn’t new: her film largely reproduces the tropes used throughout the 1960s and 1970s to repress urban rebellions and justify the security regime that followed.

Detroit’s Great Rebellion was the largest of the uprisings and riots that took place in three hundred American cities between 1964 and 1972. Around half a million black Americans participated in these revolts, and two hundred and fifty people lost their lives.

The uprising in Detroit started not only because of a racist police force but also because of growing unemployment, punishing work conditions, substandard housing, and aggressive criminalization. Bigelow erases this political and economic context, preferring instead to tell a tale of “race riots.”

The Spark

Detroit opens with a stage-setting voice over. After black workers’ great northern migration, a second great migration occurred — racist whites abandoned cities, “taking jobs and money with them.” Almost immediately, Bigelow dives into her harrowing depiction of the Algiers Motel incident, a confrontation between murderous white cops and mostly black victims that left three people dead.

Bigelow obscures the central role of capital and the state from the start. White people did not leave cities and take jobs with them: jobs left, and whites followed. From 1947 to 1958, the big three auto companies built twenty-five new factories in southeast Michigan, away from Detroit, where class struggle had become more and more intense.

In early 1944, for example, Detroit workers averaged a dozen work stoppages a week. A year later, a 225,000-worker action at General Motors catalyzed a nationwide strike that swept up more than three million workers. These events amounted to what the US Bureau of Labor Statistics called “the most concentrated period of labor-management strife in the country’s history.”

The state helped capital flee to the suburbs: it invested in infrastructure and granted favorable home loans to white families. This helps explain why many white Americans believed that their interests aligned with capital rather than with the struggling urban workers.

The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act enshrined this counterrevolution into law by allowing states to pass right-to-work laws, forbidding secondary strikes and boycotts, and forcing union officials to sign affidavits guaranteeing that they had no contact with the Communist Party. This last provision facilitated the mass expulsion of left-wing local unions and also caused black membership in the Communist Party to plummet. As the number of unionized workers decreased from 5.2 million in 1945 to 3.7 million five years later, all workers faced more desperate circumstances.

Indeed, the image of a postwar golden age for workers is largely a fiction, especially in Detroit. In 1950, American factories made 80 percent of the world’s automobiles, but, in the Motor City, already 23 percent of workers were jobless.

Life would only get more precarious for the working class in general and black workers in particular. With the radical sectors of the labor movement crippled, Walter Reuther’s United Autoworkers (UAW) signed a series of contracts known as the Treaty of Detroit: in exchange for modest wage increases, the union completely ceded control of the shop floor, allowing the companies to automate at will. While more than one hundred thousand Detroiters could not find work, compulsory overtime became the auto industry’s norm.

In his classic 1963 work, The American Revolution, James Boggs echoes Marx while describing his experiences as a Detroit autoworker:

Automation replaces men. This of course is nothing new. What is new is that now, unlike most earlier periods, the displaced men have nowhere to go. . . . As automation spreads, it will intensify the crises of capitalism and sharpen the conflicts among the various sections of the population, particularly between those working and those not working, those paying taxes and those not paying taxes.

As the number of unskilled laborers in the American workforce decreased from 36 percent in 1910 to just 5 percent in 1962, black workers — who occupied the most vulnerable position in the labor market and who could not accrue the wealth that comes from home ownership — suffered the most. Across the United States, black youth unemployment rose from 16.5 percent in 1954 to 26 percent in 1965. In Detroit, half of high school dropouts could not find jobs.

This population then became the target of aggressive criminalization policies. From 1950 to 1965, as the government introduced draconian mandatory-minimum sentences for first-time marijuana possession, the number of drug offenders in federal prisons nearly doubled. In Detroit, though blacks made up only 20 percent of the city’s population, they constituted 89 percent of the drug arrests in the mid-1950s. Meanwhile, police began using stop-and-frisk tactics, deploying them almost exclusively in the poor black neighborhoods that were becoming more politically militant.

The Fire

In this context of punishing work conditions, rampant unemployment, and hyper-aggressive policing, many radical black organizations formed, often taking positions critical of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent, integrationist politics. The list includes the Shrine of the Black Madonna, Uhuru, the Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Group on Advanced Leadership, the Detroit chapter of the Revolutionary Action Movement, the Afro-American Youth Movement, Republic of New Afrika, News and Letters, and the Johnson-Forest Tendency, which CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs led.

Malcolm X, a former Lincoln-Mercury plant worker who went by the nickname Detroit Red, had intimate relationships with many members of this network, and he delivered two of his most influential speeches — “Message to the Grass Roots” and “The Ballot or the Bullet” — in Detroit. Most of these activists were not only fighting racism; they were also demanding what black socialist Bayard Rustin called a “refashioning of the political economy.”

In July 1967, amid violent urban uprisings around the country, Detroit’s Great Rebellion began. Bigelow erases these radical groups — and indeed political groups in general — from her film: all she shows are angry black men looting and setting fires. Her portrayal eerily resembles how the corporate media attempted to frame the events at the time: as an “orgy of pillage.”

Even if we heed Adolph Reed’s advice not to “impute instrumental rationality” to this period’s rebellions, it is clear that this event amounted to much more than a race riot. Long-time Detroit activist Grace-Lee Boggs described it as a

rising up . . . against both the police, which they considered an occupation army, and against what they sensed had become their expendability because of high-tech. That what black people had been valued for, for hundreds of years, only for their labor, was now being taken away from them.

Bigelow offers a straightforward story of racial enmity, but the story is more complex. The editor of the Michigan Chronicle, Detroit’s leading black newspaper, criticized the police’s “permissiveness” in handling “looters,” demonstrating the gulf between working- and middle-class black residents. When black congressman John Conyers could not persuade his constituents to leave the streets, he offered this candid explanation: “they’re alienated from us. We don’t speak their language. We throw $100 dinners and some of these people don’t see $100 in a month.”

In Detroit, auto workers only appear at work, often discovering that their sons, who they wish were “smarter than that,” have foolishly joined the uprising. But, during the actual rebellion, worker absenteeism ran so high that it brought production to a near standstill. A survey from a local prison showed that 40 percent of arrestees worked for the big three automakers. And while the uprising was black-led, white auto workers, entirely absent from the film, took part in the rebellion in significant numbers: 12 percent of those arrested during the rebellion were white, and whites committed 27 percent of the arsons.

Many members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a Marxist-Leninist organization that emerged in the uprising’s immediate aftermath, describe the subjective shift that occurred across those five days. While the police and army maintained strict curfews, autoworkers could go where they liked. This relative freedom allowed them to realize their power to disrupt at the point of production, and they did just that: the second-largest strike wave in postwar history took place after the Detroit Rebellion, between 1967 and 1971.

The Revolutionary Worker provides this account of the uprising:

Those who had been sent to fight for US imperialism in the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam were turning the guns around. The war had come home. One observer testified that he’d overheard an early walkie-talkie command to spread the disorder to the east side. The authorities in their fear saw things everywhere — some real, some not. The Fire Chief believed that arsonists used divide-and-conquer tactics and that others lured his men into gun ambushes by telephoning bogus reports of fires. A survey of metro-area residents two weeks after the rebellion found that 55.5 percent thought it had been planned, and many were inclined to call it an insurrection or revolution.

As Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr documented, days into the uprising, representatives from the Malcolm X Society contacted Michigan’s governor George Romney and promised to end “all hostilities” in return for greater employment opportunities, as well as community control of the police and school system. The government responded by sending in 4,700 paratroopers to squash the rebellion. They eventually did, but only after forty-three people were killed.

The Failed Politics of Representation

The point of providing this history is not merely to correct Bigelow’s historical telling but to also contest the political program her film implicitly suggests. If the spark that lit the Detroit Rebellion was white racism and rogue police officers, then we have a simple solution: elect more black politicians, hire more black police officers, and train the police better. And this is precisely what happened, but, as theorists like Bayard Rustin warned at the time, these changes did not benefit either black workers or the working class more generally.

In Detroit, Coleman Young became the city’s first black mayor. In his inaugural address, he announced:

I issue a forward warning now to all dope pushers, to all ripoff artists, to all muggers: it’s time to leave Detroit; hit Eight Mile Road. And I don’t give a damn if they are black or white, or if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges: hit the road.

Young then reformed and integrated the police department. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Studs Terkel declared that, in Detroit, as in every American city:

[T]here’s a new attitude. . . . The police are no longer looked upon as a foreign army of occupation. . . . It reflects a new respect between the people and the police.

But while liberals were praising this post-riot era of civil harmony, the situation for workers was only getting worse. Between 1971 and 1981, the national unemployment rate doubled, and the prison population increased by 45 percent.

This decade was marked by a dialectic of repression and integration, in which a small segment of a racialized community is allowed to advance at the expense of group as a whole, which faces deteriorating living conditions.

This dynamic continues to this day. Attempts to frame unsavory political processes, such as police brutality and mass incarceration, exclusively through the lens of racial injustice overlook this logic. In postindustrial capitalism, the politics of representation provide cover for neoliberal economic policies that brutalize the poorest segments of the working class — regardless of race.

Those interested in Detroit’s uprising would do well to avoid Bigelow’s perturbing take and instead watch Finally Got the News, a 1970 film made in collaboration with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Although the group eventually collapsed under the weight of state repression, their political analysis — so foreign to Bigelow’s vision — remains as pertinent as ever. In it, organizers like John Watson, a member of the league’s executive committee, condemn racism and “confusion amongst white people in this country, amongst white workers in this country, about who the enemy is.” Instead, they pose an emancipatory alternative.

Today, as in 1967, capital divides and conquers the working class. Rewriting history, as Detroit does, obscures our avenues for fighting back.