This weekend was the Detroit Free Press Film Festival, an annual event that screens a variety of documentaries in venues across the city. I was able to catch two films, and the fact that I’m still thinking about both of them is a good sign that they were worth watching.
I want to focus on the first, which was the world premiere of “12th and Clairmount”. The highly anticipated documentary explores life in the city of Detroit during the summer of the 1967 race riots. This film took an event that in many ways seems indescribable, and makes it shockingly real through all original footage. There were no absolutely no cliché documentary shots of an old man in an armchair talking to the camera. Detroiters submitted thousands of reels of home videos —and not just the harrowing footage of the riot and its aftermath, but the everyday videos that genuinely express life at that time for a divided city and its people, from neighborhood block parties and jazz clubs to warm family moments. This juxtaposition of the “normal” with the “nightmare” made it that much more powerful.
The footage was matched with interviews from anonymous Detroiters, brilliantly exposing culture, economic landscapes, and physical and emotional devastation. It was hard to hear from people who watched tanks roll up their streets and watched their city burn. It was hard to hear stories about people who had never seen the policeman as people who were going to protect or serve them and people who looked like them.
It’s not a surprising takeaway, but the film reinforces the troubling and ever-present fact that Detroit, and the rest of America, still has a long way to go.