Barbarian (2022) is a new horror film that explores many things including AirBnB woes and Detroit's Housing Crisis. Ghouls dive into this brilliant film and how it left them with much to unpack. Gabe explains the connections to Detroit's housing issues and Kat explores how we got here. What's haunting Detroit?
Sources in this Episode: Barbarian Ending Explained: The Horrors and Resilience of Womanhood Barbarian: Suburbia is Still the Scariest Place in America Detroit Under Fire: Police Violence, Crime Politics, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Civil Rights Era Residential Segregation in Detroit
Reviews about Barbarian: Barbarian (2022) Movie Ending, Explained | High on Films Why Keith Had To Die In Barbarian (& What Happened To His Body?!) Barbarian: What Frank Did & Why He Shot Himself 'Barbarian' Filmmaker Zach Cregger Pulls Back the Curtain on the Film's Many Secrets Barbarian: Explaining the 2022 Horror Movie's Ending Barbarian Ending Explained (In Detail) Barbarian: A Descent Into the Familiar – The Twin Geeks Why Barbarian's Brightmoor Is the Perfect Symbol for Detroit's Housing Crisis Barbarian’s Detroit Setting Has A Deeper Meaning Than You Realize
Media from this week's episode:
A woman staying at an Airbnb discovers that the house she has rented is not what it seems.
Director: Zach Cregger
Barbarian (2022): The Horrors of Detroit's Housing Crisis by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Barbarian is a new and original horror movie that has shooketh the horror community. Created by Zach Cregger, former member of The Whitest Kids You Know, I was slightly hesitant to watch it. However, I think comedy-creators at the helm of horror makes for great scares and a fun time (thanks Jordan Peele). The biggest thing about this film is that you shouldn’t know anything about it before you hop in. So, I highly, very seriously, ask that you watch the film before listening to me unpack it. It’s available on HBO Max and Hulu, so go out there and watch it! There is so much I can say about this film. A few different themes I could unpack. But this is our episode about Haunted Towns, so I’m going to try and steer it towards the haunted Detroit rather than the feminist undertones. I’m going to try.
The film opens on Tess, a young woman in her car on a rainy street. She scrolls through the text of an email containing the lockbox code for her Airbnb. The situation seems normal as she mumbles the code to herself (though it is wrong) before trying to unlock the box for the key. When she does open the box, the key is missing. Luckily, and strangely, someone is in the home and opens the door for her. And so the trailer’s teasing begins. Who is this guy and what is he doing in her Airbnb?
Bill Skarsgård plays Keith, the current guest of this double-booked Airbnb. Tess is a new final girl fave for me. Her gut and initial reaction to presumed danger really resonated with me. Immediately, Tess is on the fence about this handsome stranger. The audience is also wary of him, thanks to the stellar casting decisions (we cannot trust Pennywise). She takes many precautions and isn’t shy to let him know she is uncertain of him and cannot be played. She doesn’t drink his tea, she calls hotels for rooms, she checks his reservation confirmation, takes a photo of his ID, and she sleeps in the room with a lock on the door. Throughout the film, Tess behaves like any Final Girl should, aware of the dangers in our world and cautious of her place in it. Her only flaw we’ll come to know is that she is too kind.
Keith tries in all he does to put Tess at ease. In those attempts, he fumbles nervously. He is aware of her discomfort and caution, but every time he tries to dispel those worries, he only reinforces them. His constant insistence of his goodness and trustworthiness, makes us all the more wary. If you have to say it. She didn’t drink the tea, so he remarks on that and tells her she can watch him make another cup. He doesn’t open the wine until she’s around, hoping she’ll want to drink with him. All the while, his awkward attempts at genuine care come off as sinister. We cannot trust Pennywise. It’s not until he reveals who he is, a member of a jazz collective that has been buying up blocks of homes in Detroit to make affordable and accessible living spaces for Detroit folx that she softens to him. Though, as an audience member, this felt too convenient given that she was in Detroit interviewing for a position as a research assistant for a documentary on this very collective. Coincidence? Or carefully laid out plan for human trafficking?
In an article on Collider titled, Barbarian Ending Explained: The Horrors and Resilience of Womanhood, writer Raquel Hollman explains how this interaction and Tess’ overall caution, sets the tone for the entire film.
“Once Tess and Keith are able to interact on a human basis, she relaxes enough to explain to him how many precautions she had to take before calming down, while he never particularly felt as though his safety was ever in jeopardy. She even remarks how, if roles were reversed, Keith would have just settled right in without a second thought. This first act does a brilliant job at establishing the female gaze that governs most of the film. Women are often socialized to constantly watch over their shoulder and to regard unfamiliar men with caution. It’s the marked differences in socialization, and overconfidence in their own safety, that brings each of the men to their demise.”
Once this human connection is made, Tess loosens up and the film takes a sharp turn into romantic comedy. A montage of the cutest scenes occurs. Were this not a horror movie, wouldn’t this be the sweetest meet-cute? A story to tell their children! They have a wonderful night and Tess has herself thinking she may’ve stumbled into a real-life rom-com until she goes to sleep. She hears noises, her door is now unlocked and she can see/hear Keith twitching and mumbling in his sleep. Is he okay?
In the morning, Tess ventures back out to her car after reading a cute note from Keith wishing her luck on the interview. Now that we see the neighborhood in the light, it’s even more unsettling and terrifying than it was the rainy, dark night before. It feels sinister, forgotten, and foreboding. Keith had cautioned her the night before, saying he wouldn’t even go around the neighborhood at this time of night. At the time, it fueled our mistrust of him. Why is he trying so hard to get her to stay? But in the daytime, we can see why he was worried. This is not the suburbs, this is a desolate, apocalyptic wasteland.
Tess eventually goes to her interview. It seems to go well until the filmmaker asks where she’s staying. When she learns that Tess is in Brightmoor, she becomes visibly worried. No one should be staying there. This is one of the hints that something truly sinister is occurring. This abandoned and broken neighborhood seems to have sad secrets. The horror movie kicks in when Tess ventures to the basement to find some TP. She gets locked in and soon discovers a hidden hallway to which she promptly “Nope”s before eventually final girling a way to see in the dark. She stumbles into the secret space to find a truly horrifying room. It’s dirty, contains only a single stained bed, a video camera, and questionable bucket. When she is freed from the basement by Keith, she is shook. Panicking, she begs Keith to leave. He brushes off her obvious fear, she must be hysterical. He reasons that a strange room with a bucket and camera is not enough to send him running. When he goes to investigate, he begs her to stay in case he’s locked in. And Tess’ folly begins. He’s gone for far too long so she goes to find him leading to a new, secret tunnel leading farther down. In this horrifying tunnel, she is very clearly terrified. She is shaking and calling out for Keith. She sees all these red flags. After a truly harrowing encounter that will leave you pondering what this movie is actually about, the film snaps over to an entirely new character.
Justin Long plays AJ, the owner of this Airbnb who has flown to Detroit after being accused of r*pe. He looks to sell the place to pay his legal fees. When he arrives at the house to find traces of another human’s presence he isn’t scared or worried, he’s angry. How dare someone be in MY house. He is continually the worst but his behavior towards the discovery of the secret rooms is what sets him apart from Tess. Instead of acknowledging the red flags and creepiness of the basement and secret tunnels, he, like Keith, brush it off, neither of them conditioned to be wary of their surroundings, to be on guard. We’re given quite a bit of comedy to relieve the stress. My favorite being the tape measure scenes. AJ eventually runs into the “villain,” not my villain, of the story, Mother and the film spirals back into horror.
As horror antics ensue, the film does another pivot and takes us back in time to Reagan-era suburbia Detroit. We learn of the real monster of this film, Frank, a serial r*pist and killer who’s been abducting women, hiding them in his basement, impregnanting them and then impregnanting those babies. Which eventually leads to Mother. We are introduced to Frank as he leaves the home of the Airbnb, only now the neighborhood is bustling. Fresh cut green lawns, the sounds of children laughing, and the radio informing us of Reagan’s plans to fix the economy follow us on our drive with Frank.
This glimpse into the past further contributes to the atmospheric horror and shows us a different character affected by the horrors of the film, Detroit. The film takes place in Brightmoor, a real neighborhood in Detroit that much like it’s film counterpart, is falling apart. Haunted by it’s past, it has fallen victim to the city’s housing crisis. Just as the daylight revealed the mishappen husk of the neighborhood, so too does this film highlight a very real problem. In a different Collider article titled, Why Barbarian's Brightmoor Is the Perfect Symbol for Detroit's Housing Crisis by Andrew Mengel, the writer explains the connections, “In fact, a new University of Michigan study estimates 37,630 households in Detroit are living in spaces neglected and wrought with dangerous maintenance issues. 13% of its households are living with exposed wires, broken furnaces, or lack of running hot water.”
What was once a robust and flourishing neighborhood, much like the one Frank stalks his way through, is now a vacant, barren landscape of boarded up homes and pink demolition slips. The article explains that Brightmoor was a working-class neighborhood of immigrants and southerners, that did fairly well during the then-booming automotive industry of the 1920s. Thanks to Dodge, Chrysler and Ford, the city had had the fourth biggest economy by 1920. Mengel explains, “According to Data Driven Detroit, there are approximately 70,000 vacant households in Detroit with an overall 20.7% vacancy rate. And it’s not just Brightmoor. A Google search of ‘Detroit’s most abandoned neighborhoods’ leads to others like Grixdale Farms, Westwood Park, and about a dozen others, all of which notch over 25% vacancy.” In the film, Frank reluctantly catches up with a neighbor who explains he, like much of the neighborhood, are packing their bags. The neighbor loosely explains the departure as, “The neighborhood is going to hell,” without specifying the need to leave. However, during this time (the 1980s), Detroit was experiencing a phenomenon known as the white flight spurred by racial tensions. This resulted in the city’s white families leaving for the suburbs of Michigan, leaving the city desolate and abandoned, a prime environment for ne’erdowells like Frank to prey on his victims.
Kat will talk more about how Detroit is haunted specifically but what also contributed to the desolation of neighborhoods like Brightmoor was the late 2000s global recession. This led to a decrease in car sales, which for a city reliant on car-creation, was hit hard by. Mengel goes on to explain how, “The consequences rocked Detroit and the city’s commerce titans like Ford, General Motors, and Pontiac laid off thousands of workers and led to a 25% population decrease. With auto factory layoffs, workers migrated out of the city, deserting their homes and deserting Detroit, leaving the city a greyfield. The city’s once famous structures like The Grande Ballroom, Vanity Ballroom, Packard Automotive Plant, and the Lee Plaza Hotel still stand vacant as of the writing of this article.”
Further, the film’s other villain, AJ, represents another issue that has contributed to the haunting of Detroit, short-term housing such as Airbnb and Vrbo. People are buying property for low-rates and renting them to temporary visitors. “The effect of short-term housing, the housing shortage, and recent inflation numbers have ballooned housing prices in America and have peaked mortgage rates to the highest they’ve been in twelve years,” says Mengel. Apparently, breaking all kinds of city ordinances, AJ further harms the community, “AJ's disregard for city ordinances and failure to maintain his property represents the disarray the short-term rentals have imbued on the housing market. For instance, in Detroit, an Airbnb property must be the host's primary residence and the property must be inspected and re-approved by the City of Detroit Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department.”
Another piece of the housing crisis represented in the film is actually the existence and portrayal of the unhoused population of Brightmoor. Andre is a character who is unhoused and first serves as a warning for the neighborhood. Still wearing our “typical horror movie” glasses, we are terrified when Andre appears to chase Tess into the house when she returns from her interview. It is broad daylight and this unhoused man is yelling at Tess to leave. She is still on edge from the cautions of the normal horrors of an unknown town and this experience shakes her further. She calls the police, only to be dismissed, they simply don’t have any cars that can help her. (The unhelpful police appear later in the film, only to further upset you and highlight why we need to abolish them in the first place, ACAB.) I was worried by his appearance, as I was worried by AJ’s portrayal at first, that this film would fall into some harmful stereotypes and rhetoric. But Andre is a hero. He is one of the few folx left living in this husk of a town, and he knows of the horrors happening below. His yelling at Tess wasn’t in a fit of mental duress but rather, a true warning about the house’s evils. He later helps to rescue her and scolds her for caring about the others. His existence as a hero, as the lone resident of a crumbling neighborhood, showcases the more direct and realistic harm the housing crisis has on the population.
There is much to unpack in this unique and absurd film. For me, one of the pieces that stuck out the most was the neighborhood. Having seen and experienced a neighborhood hauntingly similar to this one, I felt just as spooked by the daytime desolation as I did the abrupt horror in the basement. Frank, Mother, and all the horrifying events that occurred underground, were a direct result of Detroit’s housing crisis. The abandonment of this city, ripe with history (we could talk about the jazz scene and Motown!), has been gutted, allowing for monsters to thrive below. But as the article continues on, “Through Google Maps Street View or a drive in the north side, the real horror in Barbarian isn't exclusively found in the basement.”
The closing thoughts of an article on Den of Geek titled, Barbarian: Suburbia is Still the Scariest Place in America by Joe George, helpfully sums up why there aren’t really any heroes in this story. “While AJ’s property-mongering brings him to his much-deserved end, our heroes Keith and Tess aren’t completely innocent either. After all, Keith has come to Detroit to purchase cheap houses he and his collective will use for artists’ residences. Whatever the virtue of his motives may be, he’s still a white man taking advantage of suburban blight to amass houses for his collective, which could be used to help unhoused people and create local communities. Tess may not be white or a man, but she’s hoping to help a director who uses these spaces in her documentaries, even as she condescends to them. While less openly exploitative, Keith and Tess take advantage of the benefits offered when AJ rents out the house and ignore or outright fear unhoused people living in the area.”
The true victim of Barbarian is Brightmoor itself, and in the end, no one is here to save it.
What is Haunting Detroit, Michigan? by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
When talking about haunted towns it’s hard to pinpoint just one, as the concept of a haunted location is totally subjective to a specific experience. Most of America is haunted by their history, and with that logic, all towns are haunted here. There are endless horrible things that have taken place here that would create the necessary energy and impact that would give cause to haunting. However, the film specifically highlights Detroit, so for my section I’ll go into greater detail about some of the things shown in the film, as well as the many reasons Detroit is deeply haunted.
What is Haunting Detroit?
Hints at this are highlighted throughout the film, although definitely more as a background storyline. In our flashback in the film, we hear a neighbor approach the villain and say they are leaving because the neighborhood is “going to hell”. This is a nod to the extensive segregation that existed in Detroit, and still does today, as well as the fears around desegregation. There is also a deeply upsetting history surrounding racially motivated police brutality. All of this information is to provide further context for the landscape we witnessed in the firm, as well as explain why we chose to highlight this film for our haunted towns series. While Detroit may not be haunted by a Monster in the theatrical sense, it is very haunted by its history, and the impact of that history haunts and hurts people to this day.
Segregation and Racism (*CW: Police Brutality, Murder, Racism)
Racism in Detroit, as with any American city - has a long history. There is so much. I recommend reading Detroit Under Fire: Police Violence, Crime Politics, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Civil Rights Era Detroit Under Fire is a multimedia digital exhibit that documents patterns and incidents of police brutality and misconduct, as well as 188 fatal shootings and other killings by law enforcement, in the city of Detroit during the era of the modern civil rights movement, from 1957-1973. The exhibit further chronicles the anti-police brutality struggle waged by civil rights and black power groups, and by many ordinary people, who demanded racial and social justice and sought accountability for systemic police violence.
The main goal of Detroit Under Fire is to uncover the deliberately hidden history of police violence, building on the work of activists at the time that these events happened, and to make this history available to impacted communities, students, and broader public audiences. The Detroit Under Fire research team has identified 75% of the officially acknowledged total of fatal shootings by police officers, and excavated more than 400 other brutality and misconduct complaints by Black citizens, from the depths of the archives. These stories are told--many for the first time publicly--in more than 100 exhibit pages that reproduce around 1,500 archival documents and allow audiences to examine these sources for themselves and dig deeper into this history.
Detroit Under Fire, published March 2021, is the pilot project of the Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, an affiliate of the Carceral State Project at the University of Michigan. Citation: Matthew D. Lassiter and the Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, Detroit Under Fire: Police Violence, Crime Politics, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Civil Rights Era (University of Michigan Carceral State Project, 2021), <specific webpage url>.
There is no way that I can cover the entirety of this in the time allotted, so I recommend reading through the historical documentation at your leisure.
Detroit specifically has a long and complex history with racism, and a turning point in that history that ended up unfortunately being more performative than anything else was the political career of Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh ran as the antithesis of the Republican incumbent, Louis Miriani. He was a young, liberal Democrat, a supporter of civil rights reforms, and he advocated for better police and community relations. African Americans, and white liberal voters, rallied around his campaign. For many commentators, Cavanagh seemed to be Detroit's version of President John F. Kennedy, a youthful Catholic politician, a father of six, an energetic reformer. Cavanagh ran on a platform of "Change," promising more jobs and a return of Detroit to the great city it once had been. His optimism ultimately ended up taking precedence over reality. He did a lot of talking, but ultimately landed more moderately than needed when it came to civil rights legislation, eventually proving that his own biases made him incapable of taking the necessary steps towards non-performative action. Cavanagh, once in office, appointed George Edwards to be the new commissioner of the Detroit Police Department with the goal of achieving light police reform. The reform was packaged as “equal enforcement” of the law, but really was just a more firm reminder that the police should be following the already standing Code of Conduct. Neither Cavanagh nor Edwards supported the necessary reform to punish and investigate officers on claims of police brutality. The result was a very “I don’t see color”, and “just stop being racist” platform that did very little to actually dismantle any forms of systemic oppression. The systemic issues in Detroit included but were not limited to job and housing discrimination, red-lining, racial & economic segregation and extensive police brutality. A deep wound that could not be healed with euphemistic words and a vague list of empty promises. A year into his term, reality came crashing in, and the wound was now infected.
Martin Luther King Jr. marched through Detroit, Michigan in 1963 on their Walk for Freedom. He gave a speech there similar to the “I Have a Dream” speech, and everything went well. The Detroit police were claimed to show restraint and act nonviolently towards protesters (which is the bare minimum) but were complimented extensively for this. The problematic-ness of that is obvious in many ways, but especially with the traumatic history of police brutality that had been extensively documented and lived for many Black Americans living in Detroit. While “King and other civil rights leaders praised the Detroit Police Department for its professionalism during the Walk for Freedom, and the city's white leadership and media lavishly praised themselves. On June 24, the day after the march, Police Commissioner Edwards stated: “I have been receiving congratulations on the work of the Police Department from all walks of life in the City of Detroit.” Edwards also told his officers, "it was a tremendous tribute to the work of the Police Department of this community and every single officer who was on duty yesterday. I suggest to you that the discipline, the skill, the strength with which all details handled the problems of this parade and meeting constituted a high water mark of professionalism." The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News also wrote multiple articles about how superbly the police operated to maintain public safety, to prevent violence, and to refrain from using force against the demonstrators (the march was orderly and nonviolent, so it is not clear why police restraint from deploying violence is particularly notable, except as a contrast to the open and unapologetic racism of the Birmingham police).” Very much the quiet racism of the North being lauded over the blatant racism of the south.
Following this loud display of the Detroit government parading “look how not racist we are”, many Black Detroit residents continued to feel frustrated with this false presentation of the police and Detroit government that was very different from their lived experience. As well as very different from the documented evidence to the contrary. The Detroit police at the time already had a long history of conducting illegal arrests of Black residents, and the city itself was (and is currently) deeply segregated. According to the Detroit Chapter of the NAACP, and the Detroit branch of the ACLU “The Detroit Police Department consistently and disproportionately subjected African Americans to illegal "investigative arrests," where officers arrested allegedly suspicious people and detained them during crime investigations. In a 1958 report, "Arrests Without Warrant," Harold Norris of the Detroit branch of the ACLU documented this unjust and extensive system of investigative arrests. The report, published in the NAACP magazine The Crisis, revealed that more than one-third of all non-traffic arrests made by the DPD were warrantless arrests "for investigation only." The State Bar of Michigan had condemned the DPD practice of making investigative arrests, without probable cause, as far back as 1948. As of 1956, 26,696 out of 67,301 total non-traffic arrests were warrantless, and most did not meet the legal standard of probable cause. The ratio had been similar for the previous decade. Norris concluded: “Thousands of citizens spend thousands of days in jail illegally and with little opportunity for release. . . . Other thousands of citizens are forced by the same practice to pay out thousands of dollars in bond money, as a kind of ransom, to regain the freedom of which they have been wrongfully deprived"-Harold Norris, The Crisis (1958) The DPD's illegal policy of investigative arrests primarily targeted African Americans. Norris categorized their experiences as the equivalent of living in a "police state," not a democracy, where the criminal justice system deprived them of the constitutional right to "fundamental immunity to arbitrary arrest." He also criticized the local courts for not enforcing the writ of habeas corpus and allowing DPD officers to detain arrested people indefinitely. Finally, the ACLU report stated that DPD officers often tortured and abused these wrongly held prisoners in order to coerce confessions and solve "crimes."
These events are what necessitated the change in police commissioners and mayors in the first place, but ultimately little changed. This became even more obvious and blatant soon after the march. Edwards took a three week vaca to Europe in celebration of the good press, and while gone, something very awful happened. Very soon after the events of the Walk for Freedom, and very close to the route of the walk, a Detroit officer murdered an unarmed Black woman named Cynthia Scott. While that is already horrific and awful, they go to extreme lengths to cover up the murder. The mayor and police attempted to cover up the murder in order to maintain their image. A week following the murder, the county prosecutor ruled the shooting a “justifiable homicide”, and in reponse about “2,500 African Americans joined a demonstration at the DPD's downtown headquarters to protest police violence.” “The campaign for justice for Cynthia Scott was led by the Detroit Council for Human Rights, a newer, militant counterpoint to the NAACP; by churches with a black nationalist orientation, especially Rev. Albert Cleage's Shrine of the Black Madonna; by radical young black activists in recently formed groups called GOAL and UHURU; and by regular working-class black people, especially women.”
Some of the documentation proving that they covered up the murder took until 2020 to be released, specifically the statements from the officers that clearly were altered and fabricated. If you want to know more about this specific case, there is an entire section of the website outlining the corruption of that specific incident. Unsurprisingly the media supported the officers framing of the event, and defamed Cynthia Scott in the press as well, skewing the public’s opinion of the case.
Unfortunately, just a year after, and another instance of Police Brutality, a young woman named Barbara Jackson was brutally attacked by Detroit Police. Luckily she survived the encounter and sued the Detroit Police Department for descrimination by race, therefore violating her civil and constitutional rights, and won. In 1965, The Jackson verdict, along with two others involving Black citizens from Detroit announced simultaneously, represented the first completed police brutality investigation by the new agency. However, this did not result in tangible change, the officers only receiving reprimands, and transferred to a different precinct. This failure to punish violent and criminal police officers had tragic consequences, not least because Patrolman Raymond Peterson went on to compile a long track record of brutality against other Black citizens and ultimately participated in the killings of nine African American males, including one that led to prosecution for murder, during the DPD's undercover STRESS operation from 1971-1973.
Nationally, the War on Poverty and Crime further funded and militarized the police to terrorize communities, by tasking them with monitoring things they never should have been in charge of.
“That being said, the target of the War on Crime was not merely criminal behavior, but rather the sociological and economic factors that the national government believed led to criminality. To that end, police and other law enforcement officials were responsible for monitoring “poverty, racial antagonism, family breakdown, [and] the restlessness of young people,” according to President Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice.
By tasking law enforcement officers to solve community-based issues, Johnson established the national War on Crime as a guerrilla warfare-style attack in poor urban black neighborhoods. Flooding the streets with police, often in plainclothes, was the presumptive solution to America’s crime ‘crisis’. This policy led to racial criminalization of black youth on the street, often for minor offenses or for nothing at all, and was not effective in combating actual criminal behavior. In Detroit, despite a rampant influx of officers in the black community, violent and nonviolent crime rates remained relatively unchanged during the mid-1960s.” The most Gotham, and Batman like method that was so close to the point but chose the entire wrong solution. FUND PUBLIC PROGRAMS THAT UPLIFT COMMUNITIES INSTEAD OF TERRORIZING THEM. They did not do that, and if you’ve been watching the news at all, still aren’t. As expected when you terrorize communities, there will be uprisings against that terror. The Detroit Uprising of 1967 was a violent and divisive time for the city and part of a wave of urban unrest that spread across the nation in the mid-to-late 1960s. Incidents of police brutality and harassment of African Americans were the immediate triggers for almost every episode of "civil unrest" during this era. In Detroit, the specific trigger was a police raid on a "blind pig," an after-hours bar, in the early morning hours of July 23, 1967. Officers in the Detroit Police Department arrested 85 African Americans, and this time people fought back. The "civil disorder"--alternatively labeled a riot, a rebellion, and an uprising--lasted for nine days and resulted in at least 43 deaths (the official count is 33 African Americans and 10 white people), around 7,200 arrests, and significant property damage. The governor of Michigan declared a state of emergency and mobilized the National Guard, and the president of the United States eventually sent in U.S. Army paratroopers to occupy the city of Detroit.
"Riot causes" identified by black residents of Detroit in Urban League survey
While systematic police brutality and mistreatment of Detroit's African American residents served as the catalyst, the 1967 Uprising also was the culmination of many underlying forces, including deep patterns of racial segregation and discrimination in housing, education, and employment. The typical "rioter" was an unemployed African American male between 15 and 24 years old. In the aftermath, the investigations seeking to pinpoint the cause of the civil unrest blamed "white racism," housing segregation, black male unemployment, and especially widespread African American resentment of police brutality. A survey of African Americans in Detroit revealed a similar indictment: police brutality was the number one cause of the civil disturbance, followed closely by crowded and substandard housing, unemployment, and poverty.
The uprising of July 1967 shattered the previous reputation that Detroit was a “Model City for racial progress”, showing the whole world the very present tension that was caused by decades of racial discrimination and police violence. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Detroit Police Department learned nothing, and thought they were doing a great job. They denied Police Brutality ever existed, only as a hoax to campaign against law enforcement. Mayor Cavanagh doubled down in his performative progressiveness, claiming police brutality was a thing of the past, and signed a repressive and racially targeted stop-and-frisk law demanded by Detroit's white population, an indication of the full alignment of white liberalism with police repression in the aftermath of the nationwide wave of urban uprisings. In addition, he enacted a hotline where citizens could call the police on things they thought might be crimes, which largely empowered white populations to militarize the police against Black Detroit residents. The Black community even lists rumors initiated by white residents as a cause for police brutality in the surveys taken, so the decision was especially tone death. The Rumor Control Center received more than 10,000 calls in the first two months of operation in the spring of 1968, and the volume skyrocketed after fears of another riot/uprising intensified following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In a typical pattern, civil rights protests such as black student school walkouts would prompt a flood of calls from fearful white residents, and then the ensuing police crackdowns (which generally included serious brutality) would elicit alarmed calls from black residents who heard rumors that the police were shooting African American youth.
When you thought it couldn’t get worse, it continues to do so: The expansion of militarized, racially targeted law enforcement in Detroit during the early 1970s took shape in the context of the punitive federal wars on crime and drugs during the Nixon administration. All of these things furthered the divide and fear from white residents, empowered to weaponize that fear. This fear is what has led to Detroit remains one of the most segregated cities in the United states to this day. In another article titled Residential Segregation in Detroit by Allison Vuono, Zoe Whalen, & Kate Setteducate they highlight how all these things coincided with segregation, financial inequity, and racism. “Today, Detroit is the second most segregated city in the United States. More than half (52.4%) of black residents of the greater Detroit area reside in primarily black neighborhoods, well above the national average of 16.8%, and tensions 'persist' over issues of segregation. To this point, primarily white suburban areas vetoed plans for a "regional transit system" in the metropolitan Detroit area (preventing increased integration), and white enrollment in schools with an influx of black students has dropped tremendously. Funding inequities between historically white and black communities also contribute to a lack of resources available to black and low-income communities, and thereby continue the legacy of segregation in these areas.”
Of course there is more information on the time between the 1970s and today, but the information above hopefully provides some additional context to why Detroit specifically is very haunted, and what paved the way for the realities it faces today. As well as the landscape we’re given in the film, of decimated neighborhoods, with many abandoned homes and crumbling infrastructure.
You can read about those issues here:
Detroit’s home repair crisis is even bigger than experts thought By Louis Aguilar
Detroit: The evolution of a housing crisis By Julie Cassidy