Here’s a diversity question some Detroit lunchgoers try to answer in 1983: Is E.T. black? 2,312 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
When General Motors announced its plan to save the auto industry with its first space mission to the moon Titan of the planet Saturn, the mission called for something special: burgers at Archibald’s Lunch. Despite its location just down Monroe Street in Greektown, Archibald’s Lunch was not at all Greek but was owned by a small wiry black man who never smiled. Archibald served burgers and tuna melts only. The tuna melts weren’t any good, and Archibald gave anyone who ordered a tuna melt such a fearsome look that the guilty party quickly called for a burger instead.
The foursome meeting up for lunch were dentist Mary, her hygienist Ramona, Detroit Free Press reporter Hollis, and the newspaper’s pop music critic Joe. Mary and Joe didn’t know each other. “Holy Moley, aren’t you the wife of our former movie critic, Carl Corbin?” he said to Mary when he met her.
“Ex-wife,” Mary said quickly. “Very ex. Since last month.”
“His desk used to be right next to mine.” Joe paused. “Unusual kind of a fellow. That whole E.T. thing. What a fracas.”
“Fracas is a newspaper word, Joe,” Hollis exclaimed. “It’s like brouhaha. We write it, but nobody actually says it.” Even as Hollis spoke, he knew he couldn’t stop the conversation from veering toward the biggest fracas in recent Free Press history.
Carl had served a brief term as movie critic after completing his master’s in Film Studies at the University of Michigan. At the time he was abruptly let go, Free Press editors mumbled something about taking the Entertainment Now section in a new direction. But it was generally understood that the new guy from L.A. had been fired for not liking E.T.
Now, Mary was no critic — but if Carl had only asked her, she might have suggested that, in a town with an unemployment rate of 17 percent, where a young Chinese-American named Vincent Chin got beaten to death outside a topless bar just because two white auto workers thought he was Japanese, where thousands of desperate former auto workers were flowing like an oil leak to Texas or California seeking jobs, if he was even thinking of calling E.T. The Extraterrestrial, the biggest feel-good movie of 1982 and maybe of all time, “a maudlin self-indulgent wallow in Steven Spielberg’s affluent childhood angst with a tired sci-fi twist,” maybe he ought not to.