It’s always fascinating to encounter a documentary about a historical event after you’ve seen the meticulously staged Hollywood version. Your hunger to take in the subject is probably ramped up a notch or two — but beyond that, there’s now an added point of interest, since a good documentary will shed powerful light on a question that lurks behind any piece of dramatized history. Namely: How accurate is it? “12th and Clairmount,” an illuminating and innovatively crafted account of the 1967 Detroit riot, is a documentary that viewers will be eager to compare and contrast with Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” (timed, like this film, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the uprising). That’s likely to give it that much more of a specialty niche.
Not that the movie wouldn’t be absorbing on its own. Brian Kaufman, who directed and edited it, takes a disarmingly personalized approach, mixing newsreels and photographs with grainy silent 8mm home movies, a number of which are accompanied on the soundtrack by first-person testimonials from the people who shot them. It’s not just riot footage, either. Kaufman, in 81 minutes, creates a revelatory portrait of the city, reaching back to the late ’50s and early ’60s, when Detroit was one of the most racially diverse places in the United States but the word Detroit didn’t carry the connotation of violent entropy and broken-down ruin that it would acquire — and hold onto — after the riots.
Kaufman constructs an arresting profile of the city’s mayor, Jerome P. Cavanagh, an ebullient and crusading integrationist who many at the time compared to JFK (he seemed on a fast track to rise into presidential politics). Under Cavanagh’s guiding hand, many believed that Detroit was a city leading the way. The film also uses first-hand witnesses to evoke the forceful influence of the speech Martin Luther King, Jr. gave in Detroit in 1963, when the gathering of thousands of African-Americans in the streets, united in righteous exaltation, became a message not so much to the outside world as to the individuals who comprised the crowd: Yes, we have the power.
But they did and they didn’t. The gains in Civil Rights were real, but Detroit remained segregated (even during the height of Cavanagh’s influence, the city council defeated an anti-housing-bias bill by a vote of 7-2), and Kaufman lets us hear from people of every class and neighborhood: the melting pot of downtown, the…