It’s always fascinating to encounter a documentary about a historical event after you’ve seen the meticulously staged Hollywood version. Your hunger to take in the subject is probably ramped up a notch or two — but beyond that, there’s now an added point of interest, since a good documentary will shed powerful light on a question that lurks behind any piece of dramatized history. Namely: How accurate is it? “12th and Clairmount,” an illuminating and innovatively crafted account of the 1967 Detroit riot, is a documentary that viewers will be eager to compare and contrast with Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” (timed, like this film, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the uprising). That’s likely to give it that much more of a specialty niche.
Not that the movie wouldn’t be absorbing on its own. Brian Kaufman, who directed and edited it, takes a disarmingly personalized approach, mixing newsreels and photographs with grainy silent 8mm home movies, a number of which are accompanied on the soundtrack by first-person testimonials from the people who shot them. It’s not just riot footage, either. Kaufman, in 81 minutes, creates a revelatory portrait of the city, reaching back to the late ’50s and early ’60s, when Detroit was one of the most racially diverse places in the United States but the word Detroit didn’t carry the connotation of violent entropy and broken-down ruin that it would acquire — and hold onto — after the riots.
Kaufman constructs an arresting profile of the city’s mayor, Jerome P. Cavanagh, an ebullient and crusading integrationist who many at the time compared to JFK (he seemed on a fast track to rise into presidential politics). Under Cavanagh’s guiding hand, many believed that Detroit was a city leading the way. The film also uses first-hand witnesses to evoke the forceful influence of the speech Martin Luther King, Jr. gave in Detroit in 1963, when the gathering of thousands of African-Americans in the streets, united in righteous exaltation, became a message not so much to the outside world as to the individuals who comprised the crowd: Yes, we have the power.
But they did and they didn’t. The gains in Civil Rights were real, but Detroit remained segregated (even during the height of Cavanagh’s influence, the city council defeated an anti-housing-bias bill by a vote of 7-2), and Kaufman lets us hear from people of every class and neighborhood: the melting pot of downtown, the whites in their secluded enclaves, the African-Americans who were kept out even when they could afford to buy a home, the way the practice of “blockbusting” worked, with landlords indulging in greedy scare tactics like paying black children to throw a bottle through a window, thereby establishing a neighborhood as vulnerable to crime, at which point the landlord would snap up one house at a fire-sale price, then another, fomenting a wave of panicked sell-offs. This was the economic engine of white flight.
“12th and Clairmount” also features a terrifying portrait of the Detroit police force, who regarded the city’s black population as a class that needed to be squashed. A group of cops known as the Big Four rode around in a squad car as a terrorist gang, looking for blacks to beat up — one of them, nicknamed Rotation Slim, carried half a pool cue as his weapon of choice. By the time “12th and Clairmount” reaches the incident that touched off the riot (the police raid on an after-hours bar on 12th Street in the wee hours of July 23, 1967), we feel in our gut that it’s nothing more than a match that lit the tinder box.
The riot is captured with a you-are-there ferocity, but that doesn’t mean the movie views it with any sort of imperial clarity. “12th and Clairmount” wipes away preconceptions by asking: What, exactly, is a riot? What was happening, spiritually and psychologically, in Watts, Cleveland, Newark, and — finally — Detroit when black Americans went on a chaotic rampage of looting and burning? As a black female witness on the soundtrack puts it, “Then the riots started. Or the revolution, or the insurrection. What is it called?” The explosion of rage and despair was a knotty tangle of empowerment and self-destruction. “12th and Clairmount” features a great deal of footage of people skulking through trashed stores, walking out with things like shoes: a fantasy apocalypse of shopping gone amok. Even when the National Guard is called in, its soldiers have no real idea of what to do. You can target law-breakers, but how do you arrest a war zone?
As someone who got swept up by the power of “Detroit,” I watched “12th and Clairmount” wishing that Bigelow’s film had spent more time with these ordinary looters. That said, the Algiers Motel incident that formed the dramatic core of “Detroit” is treated in several scenes that confirm the truth that Bigelow’s film was built around: that the execution-style murder of three young black men by police officers was the Detroit riot’s heart of darkness — the fullest expression of the sickness that triggered the upheaval in the first place. Phrases like “police brutality” or “black lives matter” can take you only so far: What words are there to say what it means when an advanced society normalizes homicide? The documentary’s amateur footage of burning buildings is expressive in a startling way. Watching “12th and Clairmount,” you feel the anger of the riot alive in the inferno. It’s the burning down of dreams.