Monday, August 12, 2002

Lukewarm: HBO's Unconvincing A City on Fire

When I was a child my parents would take me to visit my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Detroit. Except, of course, they didn’t really live in Detroit. They lived in the suburbs of Livonia, Oak Park, Dearborn, and Rochester Hills. In fact, none of my relatives had lived in Detroit since the late 1960's because, in the words of an uncle I have thankfully lost contact with, "that’s when the niggers took over." He was talking about the 1967 Detroit riots that left 46 dead, thousands injured, and over 2,500 businesses burned to the ground. The long-term effects were even more devastating. A good part of Detroit's population fled north of 8 Mile Road, leaving the city crippled by poverty, crime, and despair.

The Detroit riots provide the backdrop for the HBO Sports documentary A City on Fire: The Story of the '68 Detroit Tigers (airing on HBO throughout August, and again in early October), about a city divided and the championship baseball team that brought it together. It's a great concept: Americans at odds over race and class coming together over the national pastime. Too bad the facts don't cooperate. No matter how hard the filmmakers try, they never quite manage to show that the Tigers' World Series run had any healing effect on the city.

City on Fire does provide a terrific and chilling view of the Detroit riots themselves. The opening moments place viewers right at the epicenter of the coming earthquake: the corner of 12th Street and Clairmont, on July 23, 1967. We see the rioters' faces close-up as tensions boil over; we watch a car full of terrified people tentatively accelerating down Grand River Avenue; we witness the beginnings of what was essentially the military occupation of inner city Detroit. In these brief, early segments, City on Fire makes for gripping television.

It also provides a telling glimpse of race relations in Detroit. Even though baseball had been integrated for over two decades, in 1967 the Tigers still had only three black players on their major league roster. Black fans at Tiger Stadium would often root for the Tigers’ better-integrated competitors. And yet on the night all hell broke loose, Gates Brown -- the Tigers’ stocky and seemingly unassuming pinch hitter, and one of its three black players -- stood in the middle of 12th Street in his uniform and pled unsuccessfully for calm. I could have listened all day to Brown and teammates Willie Horton and Earl Wilson talking about day-to-day life in black Detroit. Unfortunately, Brown, Horton, and Wilson are relegated to bit-part status as soon as Dick McAuliffe grounds into the double play that ends the Tigers’ 1967 season.

At that point City on Fire loses focus and becomes essentially two different documentaries: one a tired account of the domestic turbulence of 1968, the other an occasionally engaging recap of the Tigers’ 1968 World Series run. The former seems an afterthought. 1968 is represented by an all-too-familiar montage of the Tet Offensive/MLK/RFK assassination/Democratic National Convention. Yes, the world was spinning out of control in 1968, but you'll learn more about it in the average U2 video than you will here.

The digressions on national politics get in the way of the real subject. The film would have done better to focus on what was going on in Detroit between July 1967 and Opening Day 1968. Instead we get little more than vague suggestions that the city feared another riot. No one discusses the tensions that gave rise to the previous violence. No one explains why another explosion might have been likely. We do, however, get to watch Detroit native Ted Nugent shock absolutely no one by telling how he carried a nine-millimeter pistol while walking the streets of Motown in those uncertain days. This is not exactly an illuminating detail. Given Nugent's well-known enthusiasm for firearms, he probably would have been packing heat even if the whole city had been dancing in rings and joyously proclaiming the eternal brotherhood of man.

City on Fire regains some momentum when it turns back to baseball. Tigers fans will already be familiar with the high points of the 1968 season, but others ought to find the rundown of major developments -- Denny McClain’s gonzo 31-win season, Al Kaline’s injury, and pitcher Mickey Lolich’s World Series heroism -- quite entertaining.

Ironically, the most enjoyable anecdote in the film has nothing to do with race at all. When Cardinal pitcher Bob Gibson tells how when he broke the World Series strikeout record in Game 1, catcher Tim McCarver trotted up to the mound to offer congratulations. Gibson promptly told McCarver to shut up and get on with the game. Brilliant! I think I speak for all baseball fans when I beg Mr. Gibson to repeat that noble deed, and stop McCarver from ruining another post-season with his similarly intrusive and distracting brand of television commentary.

City on Fire has other enjoyable and informative moments like that one, but they aren't enough to salvage the whole. Specifically, the film’s central premise -- that the Tigers’ 1968 World Series "may not have saved the Motor City, but there's little doubt they helped it to heal" -- never really pans out.

For instance, it is implied that the Tigers’ race-blind esprit d'corps set a good example for the rest of Detroit. But that notion suffers a bit when we hear Lolich blame his slow start in Game 5 on Jose Feliciano’s bluesy, mournful interpretation of the National Anthem. Here Lolich is echoing the views of the (mostly white) establishment, which treated Feliciano's rendition as an assault on American values.

Likewise, when you hear that the Tigers won the World Series over a black and Latino-heavy St. Louis Cardinal squad, it’s hard not to think of those black Detroiters who were in the habit of rooting for more integrated teams. Might it have been predominately the white fans who rallied ‘round the Tigers? We never really find out.

Ultimately, the filmmakers’ argument that the Tigers "healed" Detroit rests upon reminiscences of how the entire city seemed to spend the summer of 1968 watching or listening to Tigers’ broadcasts in perfect harmony. But setting aside for a moment that such things are always said about a team mounting an improbably successful season (e.g. Boston during the Red Sox’ "Impossible Dream" season of 1967 and Seattle as the Mariners rode Ichiromania to 116 wins last season) it's worth noting that there's a significant difference between healing and distraction. Detroiters may have forgotten their troubles during the binge of 1968, but the city was in for the hangover of a century once the World Series ended.