Kathryn Bigelow's 'Detroit' Tells The True Story Of The Algiers Motel Incident
The 1967 civil unrest provides backdrop for the film
"Malcolm X" (1992)
"The Black Mix Tape: 1967-1975" (2010)
"Hidden Colors" (2011)
"Get Out" (2017)
Kathryn Bigelow’s new film “Detroit” looks to the tragic events at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 riots in the Motor City. (Note: I will be talking about the historical events behind the film, and that contains spoilers if you do not already know what happened.)
For five days in 1967, Detroit was rocked by violent unrest that would leave 43 dead, hundreds injured, thousands arrested and neighborhoods burned to the ground. The film “Detroit” opens with an animated montage that tries to explain the circumstances that led to the build up of tensions and the ultimate explosion.
Bigelow reteams with writer Mark Boal for the third time (previously they did “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”). For “Detroit” they decided to begin wide and with broad brush strokes and then hone in on a trio of black teenaged boys killed by white police officers at the Algiers Motel.
On the third night of the violent turmoil, reports of sniper fire coming from the direction of Algiers Motel prompted the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police, the National Guard, and private security guard Melvin Dismukes, played by John Boyega to check out the Algiers. Twelve individuals — 10 young black men and two young white women — were rounded up, questioned, beaten and tortured. The film points to a trio of racist white cops as the main perpetrators of the abuse.
Bigelow’s film tries to convey what it was like to be black in a city where almost the entire police force was white, to have your neighborhood turned into a war zone with tanks on the street, and to feel powerless in the face of injustice. Bigelow’s strength as a filmmaker is in capturing the moment, in conveying what it is like to defuse a bomb (“The Hurt Locker”), to be a vampire on the prowl (“Near Dark”), to be undercover with a bunch of adrenaline junkies (“Point Break”) or to be entrenched in a decade-long search for a terrorist (“Zero Dark Thirty”). She is not as good at nuance and complex emotions. She is a filmmaker who thrives on the adrenaline of action. That skill set works well in genre films such as “Point Break” and “Near Dark” but can grow a little problematic in films that start to raise social and political issues such as “Zero Dark Thirty” and now “Detroit.”
As a result “Detroit” feels light on context, insight, and background but is horrifically effective in portraying what happened on a single night in one claustrophobic location. Once the film arrives at the Algiers and we are trapped in that lobby with the motel guests and the cops, the tension becomes grueling. It is here that Bigelow is in her element. She knows how to make the situation palpable.
"Detroit" is not an easy watch because Bigelow effectively puts you at the Algiers Motel, making you feel the terror of having all your rights suddenly taken away. Bigelow also makes you feel what it is like to be put at the mercy of some police officers who see themselves above the law. This film serves up something far more horrific and disturbing than any horror movie could.
But when the film moves to the aftermath of the incident and to the trial of the officers, it loses its intense focus and takes Bigelow out of her element. By spending a good portion of the film on what happened after the murders, the film tries to offer some sort of resolution to what happened. Unfortunately, it is neither a very satisfying one nor one that offers any comfort.
The film leaves you with a deep sense of outrage that justice was never served and that on a certain level, little has changed in 50 years. We still see cases of innocent African Americans killed by white cops who are not usually held accountable. But at least by shining a light on what happened at the Algiers Motel, there is an opportunity to acknowledge the tragedy on a mainstream stage and to hopefully start a discussion about what happened.
I am sure the film and Bigelow will take some flak for the fact she is a white filmmaker telling a story that is very much about the black community. It is true that an African American filmmaker and one that might have grown up in the Detroit area would have a different perspective and probably be able to tell a more personal story. But Bigelow deserves credit for using her clout in Hollywood to get this film made and to focus attention on an incident that many and perhaps most Americans were unaware of and to ask us to remember the three victims, Aubrey Pollard, 19; Fred Temple, 18; and Carl Cooper, 17.
Has Bigelow made a perfect film? No. Has she made an important film? Yes. And for the most part, it is well crafted and is able to put the viewer on the ground in the middle of a city that was exploding.
Are there other stories to tell from this period of civil unrest? Most definitely. Most notably there are stories to tell about the black activism in response to the violence whether it be peaceful activism through organizations like Focus: HOPE or more radical groups like the Black Panthers. Telling the story of African Americans who fight back or who take an active role in opposing the establishment (be it through peaceful means or violent ones), those are the stories less often told and that need to eventually be seen more on film.
Calling this film “Detroit” is a bit misleading because it is not really about the city as a whole or even broadly about what has come to be known as the Detroit riots or the Detroit rebellion or uprising (which reflects the point of view that it was a reaction to systemic racism and decades of harassment by some white police officers). But calling it “The Algiers Motel Incident” probably wouldn’t sell as many tickets.
Bigelow has stated in interviews and in the press materials that she hopes “Detroit” (rated R for strong violence and pervasive language) will encourage a conversation about race that Americans need to have and that it can agitate for change. There is a scene toward the end of the night when one of the men who survived the Algiers interrogation and brutalization is trying to get to safety. He is bloody and beaten and crosses paths with a Detroit cop. There is a moment when he and we as the audience fear that this encounter might lead to more abuse, but instead, the cop proves compassionate, helpful and eager to get the man to a hospital. After all that he had been through that night, and essentially all that he had been through growing up in Detroit, his expectation was not that a white police officer would treat him either fairly or kindly. It is a telling moment because it emphasizes what a betrayal police brutality is, aside from the criminality of what we see happen in the film, there is an underlying and deeply disturbing betrayal of trust. As citizens, we should feel confident that we can go to the police for help and fair treatment, and if they are the ones breaking the law and abusing the power, it is among other things a betrayal of the public’s trust.
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