Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win is a gripping, unforgettable documentary set within the shadows of Detroit's '67 rebellion, a time in which Black Detroiter's were still being trampled on by decades of racist policing and practices.
Christopher Gruse's feature documentary tells a story that is unfamiliar to many yet remains, quite obviously, incredibly relevant and timely even today. The national drug epidemic was raging in the Motor City and Detroit's police department responded by creating a special unit - S.T.R.E.S.S. (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) - the kind of colorfully named unit that attracts popular support with popular goals, after all who doesn't want safe streets, but in reality was a murderous, brutal decor unit that was responsible for the outright execution of 22 Black citizens.
Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win largely focuses on the efforts of Ken Cockrel, a radical Marxist attorney in Detroit, who led a group of activists and community leaders to get the unit abolished and to restore justice. Gruse's documentary is unflinching in telling the story of a city that was far too willing, eager even, to abandon the Constitution and trample on the rights of its black citizens and to label it as justice.
Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win is screening on Sunday, April 29th at 1pm in The Toby at Newfields and on Tuesday, May 1st at 5:15pm inside the festival's more intimate setting, Indy Film Salon. Having been one of the last feature docs I caught as part of screening the fest's films, it's a no brainer to say that Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win is one of the festival's most rewarding cinematic experiences.
While Cockrel had been a longtime activist in Detroit, it wasn't really until he obtained his law degree that the loud voice became an influential one. Cockrel defended Alfred Hibbitt in the famous New Bethel case, a case in which Hibbitt was accused of shooting two police officers during a shootout at New Bethel Baptist Church. Hibbitt's acquittal came after Cockrel successfully cited the racist activities of the Detroit Police Department. While the win in itself was landmark, Cockrel further made a name for himself when he was charged with contempt for calling the trial's presiding Recorders Court judge a 'lawless, racist, rogue bandit, thief, pirate, honky dog fool."
Ultimately, Cockrel also successfully defended himself against that contempt charge at least partly by exposing the harsh truth that the Wayne County Jury Commission systematically insured that juries were overwhelmingly white, male, and middle class.
This case wasn't the only successful landmark case for Cockrel, though most of Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win focuses on his remarkable impact on exposing the truth behind the S.T.R.E.S.S. Unit and his successful defense of Hayward Brown, an African-American man accused of shooting a Detroit police officer. The case hinged on demonstrating that Brown fired in self-defense because the actions of the S.T.R.E.S.S. Unit had created a climate of fear amongst the city's Black citizens.
The S.T.R.E.S.S. Unit was finally disbanded when Detroit elected its first African-American mayor in 1974, an election that began a shift in the city's politics that also included Cockrel's own election into city leadership. It was long believed that Cockrel would eventually assume the city's Mayoral position, though the city was rocked when the life-changing activist passed away from a massive heart attack at the young age of 52.
Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win is an unforgettable documentary that weaves together archival footage with effectively constructed re-enactments to give Detroit a feeling not far removed from The Town That Dreaded Sundown - especially if you were a young black man living in the city. Heartbreaking and unforgettable and more than a little anger inducing, Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win is a must see film and definitely one of Indy Film Fest's must see feature films.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic