Fifty years ago, Detroit experienced one of the most violent civil rebellions in its history. While you’ve probably heard about Katheryn Bigelow’s big screen treatment of the events of 1967 (her film Detroit will be released nationally August 4th), there’s another lesser-known film that looks back at those tragic events. Written, produced and directed by staff members of the Detroit Free Press, 12th and Clairmount examines the political, cultural and social climate of the summer of 1967, and documents the events of the disturbance that dramatically changed the city.
Brian Kaufman directs this unique documentary, which he also co-wrote, along with Kathy Kieliszewski and Bill McGraw. What makes the film different from other historical documentary films is that at no point do you see a talking head on screen. Traditional docs include a number of on-camera interviews to help tell the story. The filmmakers of 12th and Clairmount decided to go in a different direction. Kaufman strives to create a completely immersive experience for viewers. The documentary attempts to transport the audience back to Detroit in the summer of ’67, interweaving snippets of home videos, television news reports, oral histories and illustrations. Rather than seeing people on screen telling their stories, heard instead are the voices of those who lived and worked in the city and were impacted by the events directly.
The film opens with images of home movies from both black and white Detroiters, discussing their lives growing up in the city. The stories are similar, as is the film footage. Playing sports in the street, barbeques, family gatherings, and parties in basements; the stories are similar regardless of race. The audience is swept up in a mid-century feeling of Americana, with little thought of racial tension. But of course, in the 20/20 hindsight of history, we as the viewers know that race does make a difference, both in 1967 and today. And the films oral histories and video soon make that abundantly clear.
12th and Clairmount accomplishes what it sets out to do, it envelops the audience in the era. Watching the documentary allows you to viscerally experience the events of the rebellion from a variety of perspectives. Because of the filmmakers’ journalistic experience, they are careful not to assign blame. Rather, the documentary presents a number of accounts of the events and allows the audience to put the pieces together and come to their own conclusions. The objective nature of the documentary is refreshing, as most video verite documentaries these days tend to manipulate the viewer subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) with a presentation style that promotes a particular political agenda. However, the filmmakers do attempt to provide some context for the violent protests and the police response, which most viewers will find helpful in their quest to better understand just what precipitated the events of the summer of ’67.
The choice of video clips, photos and oral histories are interwoven adeptly to tell the story. Illustrations are also employed as a device to help keep the film visually interesting when video and photographic evidence are not available. While this is a clever technique, there are times when the illustrations are used for too long a stretch of time, and it slows the pacing of the film. It also interrupts the immersive experience the filmmakers are striving for.
Overall, the documentary is insightful and particularly relevant as we hit the fifty-year anniversary of this sad chapter in our history. While there is much talk about the rebound and rejuvenation Detroit is experiencing today, it’s important to learn from history and avoid making the same mistakes again. This film helps explain not only the impetus for the rebellion, but the impact it had on the city of Detroit for years to come.