Tuesday, August 22, 2017

On My Mind: From Charlottesville to Detroit to Durham

On Saturday August 12, 2017, I did the same thing most of you did. I watched in horror as violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia. If you’re unaware of what happened, a group of white supremacists were having a rally to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a park in the city. Counter protestors also showed up in support of the statue’s removal. It was a predictably contentious scene which became tragic when James Fields, a young man who identifies as a white nationalist, drove his car into a crowd of counter protestors. One of them, Heather Heyer was killed. Dozens of others were injured. If that weren’t frightening enough, President Donald Trump sent out tweet saying we should condemn the hate “on all sides” as if Heyer, and all the people who were run over by a car driven by an angry, young, self-proclaimed Nazi, were somehow culpable for what happened. The President of the United States, the person we’ve come to think of as the leader of the free world regardless of who has the job, failed to denounce a terrorist organization that has brought fear and pain while spitting vitriol at anyone who they can identify as Black, Jewish, or otherwise not white since the end of The Civil War. By saying there was blame to be shared on all sides, he put the Nazis on the same moral plain as those who oppose them. Think about this: people who, at their very best, take every advancement made by people of color as a direct attack on the birthrights of white people. Rightly, white supremacists of all stripes took Pres. Trump’s toothless bite as a show of support.

Heather Heyer
The media picked up on the president’s suddenly vague posturing and called him on it. Whatever you think of Pres. Trump, he’s never been a person who shies away from specificity. He speaks, or tweets, directly about the people or things he has a problem with. It’s probably the trait most responsible for getting him elected. However, it doesn’t take a genius to reach the conclusion that he is merely being protective of his dwindling number of supporters. By every account I can find, his approval rating is lower than any president in the modern era, and dropping. Of course, he’d be hesitant to criticize people who literally marched through the streets of an American city chanting “Heil Trump.” Two days after the Charlottesville tragedy, Pres. Trump attempted to correct his mistake by making a stronger condemnation of white supremacy. It felt empty, but at least he tried, right?

That was Monday.

Can you guess who wasn’t happy with his remarks?

No points if you said white supremacists. That was a bit obvious, no?

On Tuesday the fifteenth of August, Pres. Trump did what he always does. He claimed the “Fake News” made up everything we all heard him say. After that, he went back to saying the thing he just told us the media made up. Namely, he went back to blaming people on “both sides” for what happened in Charlottesville. I wish I could say I was surprised, but I wasn’t. Anyway, it made white supremacists happy, again. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a man synonymous with white hatred, sent out a note of gratitude over twitter: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth.” For decades, the Republican party has been seen as the party of conservatives. However, conservative has become widely viewed a code-word for racist. Still, most Republicans of note has made sure they publicly, and clearly, distanced themselves from Mr. Duke. Pres. Trump has yet to do so.

I live in Durham, North Carolina. On Monday, a number of people spontaneously took to the streets outside the Durham County Courthouse as a response to Charlottesville. Before long, they had forcefully pulled down a Confederate statue that stood at its entrance. For a long time now, many in state and local governments, as well universities, all over the country have put out public statements denouncing everything the Confederacy stood for, yet shied away from advocating the removal of their monuments. They are among the least debatable symbols of hatred we have. They should never have gone up in the first place. I understand there is a process to get them removed. Just so there’s no mistaking me here, I’ll say it plainly. I support the actions of those who pulled this particular statue down. Occasionally, something drastic has to happen to snap the powers that be out of their slumber. This, along with what took place in Charlottesville, was one such event. Over the days that followed, a number of Confederate monuments were taken down by the institutions that put them there. This includes one of Robert E. Lee at Duke University. When they realized people were no longer willing to abide the hemming and hawing that came as responses to questions about those monuments, they were removed.

Congratulations if you made it this far. You don’t come to this blog for political posts. You come to read something movie-related. That brings me to Tuesday afternoon.

On Tuesdays, in my area, a few theaters drop ticket prices to five bucks for a matinee and six for evening shows. The wife and I were both home that day and decided to take in a show. We decided to go see Kathryn Bigelow’s latest, Detroit. As you might imagine, the theater was kind of empty for a 12:30 pm show on a Tuesday afternoon. Including Mrs. Dell and myself, there were about 15 people present. More than half were white people who appeared to be in their sixties or older.

The movie is based on a real-life tragedy that happened in the city of Detroit in 1967 during riots that broke out after an unauthorized police raid of an afterhours spot. During the several days of unrest that followed this raid, police officers killed three African-American teens at The Algiers Motel. After some setup, the film leans heavily into the hours during which these killings take place. At the conclusion of these events, Detroit switches gears and focuses on the resulting trial of the officers.

Bigelow’s film tells its tale in gripping fashion. Some might say it overdoes things with far too much shaky cam, but that technique does achieve its apparent goal of putting us into the action. We get the sensation of being in the room while the madness swirls about. This ensures our empathy for the victims. Also aiding in that department are the performances of the cast. John Boyega, Will Poulter, and Algee Smith serve as our entry points into the story. All three men do outstanding work. Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a black security guard whose innate goodness puts him in the middle of a situation he could easily have stayed away from. Poulter is Phillip Krauss, the cop who assumes the leadership role amongst his brethren and fancies himself the authority on all things. Smith plays aspiring singer Larry Reed who finds himself at the Algiers after the riots shut down a gig he and his group, The Dramatics, were playing. Much of the film vacillates between these gentlemen as the focal point of the action. It’s never less than tense and never lets go.

I want to say I enjoyed Detroit, but that wouldn’t be accurate. I find it to be an excellent film, to be sure, but it’s an infuriating one. The anger it engenders is two-fold. First, we’re disturbed by the story unfolding on the screen. Second, we can’t escape the unsettling feeling that a movie about an event that happened fifty years ago is still timely and relevant. By now, we were supposed to have been passed the types of things depicted in the film. Clearly, we are not.

So disquieted was I, the way I physically watch movies was thrown out of whack. When Mrs. Dell and I go to the movies we spend the first part of it scarfing down snacks like the good, gluttonous Americans we are. After that, we spend much of the rest of the show either with my arm around her or just holding hands like teenagers. The snacks were inhaled as hastily as ever, but my arm never slid around her shoulder. My hands never sought hers in the dark. Instead they alternated between squeezing the armrests on either side of me and rubbing against one another in dismay. Mrs. Dell questioned me on my behavior. I apologized and let her know I just couldn’t. Romantic notions had beaten a path to the recesses of my mind. That was my first apology of the day.

When the movie ended, Mrs. Dell and I sat as the credits rolled. We do this when we go see big franchise flicks so we don’t miss some Earth shattering mid or post credits scene, God forbid. In this case, I just needed a few minutes to gather myself to go out into the public of which I just had a two plus hour reminder of its terribleness. I thought back a few months to when we went to see Get Out. That film also dealt with racial tension, but in a much different way. It was satire exaggerated to achieve its horror. While it provoked serious thoughts within me, it also made me have satirical, exaggerated reactions. As we were leaving the theater after that movie, a white gentleman was shuffling across the parking lot in the path of our vehicle. I said to Mrs. Dell and our two teenage daughters, “No, he is NOT walking all slow in front of this car tonight! He’s tryin’ to get run over!” I had no intention of killing that man. Everyone in the car knew that, we all had a laugh and that was that.

The minutes after Detroit had no moment of levity, but something happened. As I usually do before heading out to the car after a movie, I went to the restroom. Remember those sexa- and septuagenarians I told you were in the theater with us? Here’s where they come back. When I first saw them before the film started I was slightly surprised, but in a good way. There is a certain level of enlightenment expected of people who lived through the 1960s and show up to a film like Detroit of their own volition. I’m not sure that level was reached.

As I was washing my hands, one of those elder gentlemen was doing the same. He looks at me and says, “Tough movie.”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Hard to believe something like that happened.”

“Unfortunately, I can.”

At that moment, one of his friends joined us at the sink. He says to that friend, “That’s the kinda thing you think only happens in movies.”


Only happens in movies? What country has he been living in? I detected no foreign accent so he seemed to be American. Again, this man was clearly twenty years older than I and I barely missed the sixties. Maybe I’m presuming too much, but I fairly certain he saw nightly newscasts detailing the struggles, the victories, and atrocities of The Civil Rights Movement. It’s quite possible he was, or knew someone who was, involved in this slice of history on one side or the other, if not both. Even if I were wrong about that, there’s no way he (they?) totally missed the news of what took place in Charlottesville just a few days prior. Was he that dense? Sheltered? Maybe he just refused to believe history until it showed up in a big, Hollywood movie. Maybe he was just trying to ingratiate himself to me, sympathize with my plight. It was another moment reminiscent of Get Out. He was probably trying to relate to me on a subject where there would appear to be a racial divide, yet was hopelessly awkward in the process. Whether his intent or not, it felt like the type of condescending, indirect racism that can only come from the mouths of white liberals.

My mind instantaneously started plotting various courses of action. Most of them involved verbal beratement, physical assault, or some combination of the two. One did not. It was the option I took since it was the most sane of them all. I’m not sure he had any idea how I felt. Rather than risk incarceration by educating him, I simply turned and left without saying another word. Mrs. Dell had grabbed a seat in the lobby. Normally, I would stop and behave gentlemanly towards her before we proceeded to the car. Not this time. I stormed by, the wind from my brisk march rattling movie posters as I passed. I grumbled “Let’s go,” without breaking stride. I the car, I gave her my second apology of the day then explained what happened in the men’s room.

At home, I cooked dinner. The temperature of my blood was far above that of my oven, but miraculously, nothing burned. My disposition wasn’t helped by the news of a presidential meltdown pouring in. I needed a pick-me-up. The beer in my fridge seemed like a prime candidate for the job. However, I decided against it when I had visions of me drowning my sorrows in a bottle of Modelo and starting my downward spiral into alcoholism. Luckily, I had six more bucks in my pocket. I chose to take that and go see another movie, a one much lighter in tone, one I would hopefully have fun with, and one I meant to see weeks ago when it came out, but didn’t. I made my way back down to the same theater, alone, and took in the 9:05 showing of Spider-Man: Homecoming. I’ll have that review up later this week, by the way.

The day after I saw Detroit, the country still abuzz over the Charlottesville, rumors began circulating that the Klan was coming to Durham. As the story went, they were to have a rally about fifteen minutes from my front door on Saturday, August 19. There wasn’t enough noise from legitimate outlets for me to believe they were coming. So, when Saturday came, I didn’t go downtown. I didn’t think it would be that big a deal. I was right about the Klan not showing up. However, I was really wrong about it not being a big deal. I ran my normal Saturday errands. By the time I got home and turned on the TV, downtown Durham was huge news all over the country. The rumors of the arrival of the KKK drew hundreds, if not thousands, of counter-protestors. The bulk of the day was a peaceful protest/celebration. Things got testy later in the day after most people had gone home. A few unorganized counter-protestors tried to hastily throw together a march on the nearby police headquarters out of the dozens that remained. A show of force by officers in riot gear shut that down without any violence (that I know of).

On that Thursday, we all got a disturbing case of déjà vu. Once again, we were inundated with news of a madman driving his car into a crowd of people. This time, it was in Barcelona, Spain. Unfortunately, this person was a lot more effective than James Fields. Thirteen people were initially killed by this person. I’ve since heard reports that the number has grown to fifteen. Color of skin was not the major factor, but differing ideologies. Pardon me for over-simplifying, but I think one is essentially the same as the other. Both are just violence perpetrated against those who look and/or think differently than ourselves. It’s sickening and perhaps a symptom of humanity’s incurable disease: itself.

As American presidents do after such tragedies, Pres. Trump made a statement. With this being an overseas incident and his staunchest supporters firmly in his back pocket, he was free to do the right thing. He wasted no time calling what happened in Barcelona an act of terrorism. It is. There is no doubt about that. Within his condemnation he again brought up a false account of a US general killing forty-nine Islamic terrorists with bullets dipped in pig’s blood and leaving a lone survivor to tell others what happened. This, Pres. Trump says, ended Islamic terrorism for thirty-five years. It’s a silly and dangerous assertion, but at least we know he is speaking out against a terrorist act. But why has he never called the tragedy in Charlottesville by the same name? Why does he behave so indignantly when someone suggests that purposely using your car as a weapon is undeniably wrong? He clearly knows it is. He said as much, himself. At the very least, he has yet to tell us that his statement was misconstrued by a media intent on reporting fake news. And so it stands, he deems one to be more wrong than the other. He can condemn acts of terrorism, so long as the terrorist are not part of his base of supporters.


  1. “That’s the kinda thing you think only happens in movies.” What the fuck were they watching? I can understand if you're watching something that is fiction but the fact that you were watching a movie based on a real-life event and someone says that. What the fuck?

    The past 10 days or something has been crazy. My dad doesn't like the idea of the Confederate statues being removed saying it's a part of history. I'm like "yeah but they should be put in some museum or something." I honestly think they should be removed although I'm still unsure about what to do with the carving in Stone Mountain though I'm fully aware of the fact that it was once a site for KKK meetings.

    I can understand the anger that African-Americans are dealing with. Some of them don't even want to say the president's name as one of them is just going to call him "45". I don't even like to say his name as I refer to him as Il Duce. I wasn't entirely surprised by his comments about Charlottesville. After all, he's a scumbag. He doesn't give shit about anyone except himself and those who support him.

    1. WTF? My sentiments, exactly.

      SJ laid out my arguments against keeping the monuments up perfectly in his comment, below. I will grant that Stone Mountain is a tricky one.

      Oh, I know a number of people who refer to him as "45." Il Duce is nice, as well, lol. Or scumbag. I can go with that.

  2. Concerning Confederate statues, the phrase that I feel like I have typed half a hundred times in the last 10 days is "People who committed treason so that they could continue to own other human beings as property don't deserve statues." Calling it history denies the reason those statues were erected in the first place--most went up during the Jim Crow era and many more during the Civil Rights era. They were put in place specifically to enforce a racist ideology at times when the racists still held huge sway over the area. It's indicative of the systemic racism in the system. So too is the fact that those saying the actions of people like James Fields are understandable. Those people would immediately jump to "terrorist" had Fields been possessed of a skin darker than mine (I am, as I've said in the past, two shades away from clear) or a religion more Islamic than their own. That is the definition of not simply racism, but entitlement and privilege.

    9/11 is our history, too. Does that mean we erect statues to the 19 hijackers? Statues go to people who deserve honor, and those who were literally willing to die for their right to own slaves don't deserve any. Full stop.

    For what it's worth, I call the current president President Dunning-Kruger.

    My dad lives in Chapel Hill, and a friend/former roommate from high school and college lives in Cary. Next time I'm in the area, Modelos are on me.

    1. I am in 100% agreement with this comment. Thank you very much.

  3. How could people think this "could only happen in movies." My immediate thought was "It's sad to think this exact thing could happen today." We've learned nothing.

    I think America could take a lesson from Germany when it comes to remembering history that's bad. Take Hitler's bunker in Berlin. People know where it's at, but now a parking lots sits there. We don't have to worship our bad history like these statues signify. We can put it in a history book or in a museum where we can learn from it and make sure it doesn't happen again.

    Anyways, I'm with you on Detroit. I didn't know specifically about the Algiers Motel incident before this movie came out, so I appreciated that and did my research on it before the film. Tonally I thought the film was a bit off. It felt like I was watching three separate movies, but it was still a good and important film.

    1. The scary thing is I have no doubt in my mind these people would erect a Hitler if we let them.

      As for the movie, I didn't know about this particular incident before, either, and did a little bit of research myself, the bare minimum I can assure you. I had issues with the tonal shifts early on when we were still being introduced to all the characters, but I thought that went away by the second act.