When Detroit, filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow’s take on that city’s violent summer of 1967, arrives in movie theaters on Friday, 50 years will have passed since the events it depicts took place. Since then, the world’s understanding of the social factors that lead to a race riot — or rebellion, as many see it — has evolved. The stories that began that summer have continued to gain chapters. Yet, as the film notes, some of the details from the eruption in Detroit remain unclear.
It was less than a year after the summer of ’67 when the first major attempt was made to distill the events that make up the film’s centerpiece. The moments in question earned only three sentences in TIME’s original report on the riots, but the writer John Hersey began work almost immediately on what would become the 1968 book The Algiers Motel Incident. (You may want to stop reading here if you consider the history a spoiler for the movie.) By the time the book was released around the first anniversary of the riots, the incident in question was well known — it was “something of a local cause célèbre” when Hersey arrived in Detroit about two months after it happened, TIME noted in reviewing the book, and was extensively covered in the local press. But Hersey’s work, and his ability to win the trust of the witnesses he interviewed, won praise for processing a complex and tragic series of events in poignant fashion.
Here’s how TIME’s 1968 review of the book described those events:
Hersey’s book was published before the 1969 trial at which one of the policemen involved was acquitted of first-degree murder. (In fact, the book was part of the reason why the trial was delayed and eventually took place in a community outside Detroit, on the theory that the publicity meant a fair jury could not be found closer to the scene.) In a 1970 civil-rights trial, the three police officers as well as a black security guard who was present were also found not guilty of a federal civil-rights conspiracy charge. But the court records and results weren’t the only things that Hersey’s quickly-published book didn’t include. For example, historians now say that the snipers mentioned in reports of riots in many cities that summer were more fear than reality.
But Hersey said at the time that he felt he could not afford to wait. He wrote the book, according to the Times, “in despair relieved only by a sense of great urgency” and acknowledged that, while some might see it as prudent to wait to publish until after the trials, “time does not stand still in the crisis of black and white in our country.”
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