Now, gentlemen, I am not saying that the white people of Detroit are different from the white people of any other city . . . I know what prejudice growing out of race and religion has done the world over, and all through time. — Clarence Darrow in 1926
Within weeks of the WWII heroism served up in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk comes Katherine Bigelow’s new film, Detroit. The contrast is stark: there is no celebration or victory in the latter film’s trip back in time to a domestic battlefield. The Detroit Rebellion began on July 23, 1967, when an unlicensed speakeasy club in the city was raided by police. The resulting riot generated an insurrection ignited by racism, police violence, African American unemployment, and poverty. Similar uprisings had burned through Watts in 1965 and earlier in July 1967 in Newark. The Detroit riots were a product of a systemic racism generated, in part, as a response to the Great Migration of African Americans from the South. (These facts, elegantly accompanied by Jacob Lawrence paintings, are made clear early on in the film.)
The film starts off with the club raid, after which patrons are herded into paddy wagons. The city quickly descends into chaos — violence, looting, and arson. It is a swift and brutal opening act to a film that grows more intense over its two and a half hour running time. Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (with whom she collaborated on both Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) focus on a notorious incident at the Algiers Motel on July 25, 1967. Thinking that there was a sniper shooting from the motel, the police stage a raid that ends in cold-blooded murder. Over several hours, seven black men and two white women are subjected by the cops to beatings, humiliation, and intimidation. The police play a ‘death game’: ‘suspects’ are brought, one-by-one, to a room. They are told to reveal the shooter. A gun is fired. The victim is told to ‘play dead.’ The other suspects are smacked around and lined up facing a wall; they are told to reveal the shooter or one of them will be next.
There was, in fact, no shooter. The ‘gun’ was merely one man fooling around with a starter pistol. The police response escalates from the disproportionate to sadistic abuse. Director Bigelow intentionally provokes the viewer by playing off of familiar scenes of police brutality in reality TV programs and cell phones. As in Hurt Locker, we are caught up in the escalating violence, trapped, like the hapless victims, in a situation that can only end horribly.
Actor and singer Algee Smith plays Larry Reed, lead singer of the vocal group The Dramatics. After the group’s performance was cancelled because of the riots, Reed finds himself at the Algiers motel. There he meets two white women who introduce him to some other African-American men staying at the motel. The situation poses no immediate threat to the women or to Reed. Bigelow plays with our prejudices (and movie cliches) regarding how the situation could turn sour. One of the men toys with a blank gun and fires a shot out the window. Police raid the building and Reed is caught in the tragic situation. British actor Will Poulter plays Philip Krauss, the cop who instigates the insane shakedown and abuse: seeing white women with a group of black men fuels his virulent racism. Poulter gives a chilling performance and the rest of ensemble is equally convincing. There are difficult scenes to watch (according to the film’s publicity release, Poulter stopped after each take to check that everybody was OK). Another Brit, John Boyega (Finn in Star Wars) plays Melvin Dismukes, a black security guard who tries to make peace, but ends up caught between loyalty to his race and maintaining his authority. Another police unit shows up, only to turn away — it does not want to get involved in “race issues.” The National Guard backs off. This mess is not their responsibility.
Detroit leaves ethical questions open. At what point does anger justify a destructive riot? Could Dismukes have done more to end the confrontation? Had the two women discussed charging for sex? Should the National Guardsmen have spoken up? The unanswered questions end up drawing us deeper into the visceral/political power of the narrative. One thing is certain: Krauss was a virulent racist.
In terms of American history, the incident has been largely forgotten. (John Hersey wrote a detailed account in his 1968 book Algiers Motel Incident. The author made an agreement with interviewees never to sell the film rights.) Detroit is a brickbat of a film that sticks to the facts based on research and testimony: the anger and shock of what happened that night and in its aftermath — given what is happening in today’s conversation about racial justice — is well worth revisiting.