Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 23 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.
From Episcopal Book of Common Prayer 1928
It has been 50 years since the death of 43 people during the violence that broke out on 12th Street in Detroit, and Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow teams again with screenwriter Mark Boal to offer a tribute to the victims. Detroit focuses upon three of the deaths, that of the murder of three black people trapped in a motel at the outbreak of the riot. Not only did a team of Detroit policemen kill the teenagers, they also tortured a group of other people (two of whom were white girls) that they held captive in what became known as the Algiers Motel incident. Sadly, this is not just a historical tribute to the victims, but also a reminder and a jeremiad against the current routine of black-killing cops being absolved of guilt for their crimes. For people of faith this also is a parable of the much-used Episcopal prayer of asking forgiveness for sins of omission as well as commission.
The destructive riot—many Detroiters today call it a rebellion—began on July 26, 1967, with at police night raid on an unlicensed bar located above a printing plant. The place was filled with friends of two black G.I.s just back from Vietnam when the cops launched their attack. Rounding up and herding the dozens of patrons in such a harsh and demeaning way, it would seem that the cops had been trained by those who had studied the tactics of the Nazi’s round-up of Jews. This is the 60s, so many of the policemen give full vent to their racist disdain for the black arrestees.
The commotion draws a crowd of onlookers, upset by what they are witnessing. The cries of some, “What did they do?” have been echoed down through the centuries of oppression. Soon someone is throwing a missile at the cops, and then the target becomes the windows of closed-up shops, followed by looting. Add a Molotov cocktail, and soon a riot is in full swing, the embattled original cops calling in reinforcements. In one of the numerous video clips inserted throughout the film we see Gov. George Romney ordering out the National Guard, complete with tanks, jeeps, and mounted machine guns. A war is on, a civil war of blacks against white enforcers of the Northern version of Jim Crow, with outbreaks also occurring that summer in Newark, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Cincinnati, and other cities.
By the next day the destruction covers several blocks, and trucks and tanks roll through the streets. The Guardsmen are so on edge that when a little girl peers out through her closed Venetians blinds, a Guardsman sees the motion and yells “Sniper” as he fires his machine gun at the window. From atop a car Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso) tries to calm the crowd, but they are too angry, their long pent-up resentment against their racist based treatment boiling over at last. (The film’s opening credits include an animated “history” of the great “Migration” of blacks from the South to the North and their subsequent segregation there also.)
Three patrolmen – Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O’Toole), and Demens (Jack Reynor) – drive through the streets amidst the burning and looting. They stop to arrest a man carrying two bags of groceries, but he runs away. Giving chase, Krauss fires his shotgun, hitting the man in the side. The fugitive gets away anyway, but bleeds to death later. When Krauss is reprimanded by a detective, he shows no remorse, even justifying his action. Surprisingly, the detective does not order the killer to stand down, but lets him go back onto the streets, which proves to be a terrible mistake, a sin of omission.
Meanwhile in a packed theater a musical review is going on, with a nervous Fred (Jacob Latimore) late in joining up with his singing group The Dramatics due to difficulties in getting through the police cordon outside. The group is to follow Martha and the Vandals, but just as the emcee is introducing them, a cop arrives with the order to evacuate the theater due to the riot. Lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) is so disappointed at missing their big opportunity to gain notice, that he remains on stage after the audience has left. He sings part of their song, with only Fred to hear it. The two take a bus to the Algiers Motel to stay the night. At the motel pool they meet two white girls from Ohio, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). Flirting with them, they invite them to a room where they say they can obtain some food. The occupants— Carl (Jason Mitchell), Lee (Peyton Alex Smith), and Aubrey (Nathan Davis, Jr.) –are not very welcoming. As they talk about the riot and the cops handling of it, Carl takes out a small pistol, and during a scuffle “shoots” Lee. The two laugh at the reaction of the others, revealing that it was a toy gun that uses blanks. The visitors and girls go back to their own room
Across the street African American security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is one of two men guarding a store. Seeing a club-wielding cop abusing a black teenager, he walks out and rescues the boy, even though the kid ungratefully calls him an “Uncle Tom” because of his uniform and gun.
From his motel window Carl watches the police swarming outside and makes a stupid mistake by trying to scare them with the firing of his blank pistol. The cops panic, taking cover and then wracking the motel’s windows with gun fire. They rush into the building, and when Carl tries to flee, Kraus shoots him in the back, stopping to drop an open switchblade by the body. A moment later Dismukes runs in, he becoming the first person to whom Kraus lies that he had killed the dead teenager in self-defense.
The cops round up Larry, Fred, Aubrey, Lee, Julie, Karen, and another unfortunate motel patron named Greene (Anthony Mackie). Forcing them to face the wall of a corridor, Krauss begins aggressively to question and threaten them. He refuses to accept their claim that none of them had guns, even though a search fails to turn up any. Dismukes tries to moderate the situation, even conducting a search of the room himself, but he is black and thus has no influence upon the racist Krauss and his two fellow cops. State troopers arrive, but as soon as they see that the captives are a mixed-race group, their leader decides he wants no part of the incident, and quickly drives away. The National Guardsman who has joined the group also seems helplessly to accept Krauss’s drastic measures of interrogation by terror. The cops accuse the girls of being prostitutes and one of the men their pimp. During one round of questioning, a cop rips off the top of the dress of one of the girls, and Krauss fondles the other’s crotch with his billie club. The cops’ cruel mind game involves taking one of the captives into a separate room and pretending to shoot him in an effort to scare the others into confessing. This game goes horribly awry when the dumber of the cops, unaware that his colleagues had only pretended to kill the victim, actually carries out the threat. The long, horrible night will result in the murder of one more of the teenagers before dawn arrives the next day and the survivors are set free.
Dead are Carl Cooper, 17; Aubrey Pollard, 19, and Fred Temple, 18, shot at close range. There is a trial of the three racist cops, and even Dismukes at first is suspected of participating, until it is proved that he was a witness rather than a participant. The trial in the film is a composite of several actual ones, but the outcome is true—the defendants were declared “Not Guilty” by the jury. It was in the late Sixties, and the attitude of so many of the whites in the area was so racist that the trial might as well have been held in Mississippi.
The filmmakers do include a scene designed to show that not every Detroit cop back then was a racist potential thug. When Larry Reed is able to run from the motel, he is taken by a cop who, seeing his blood and bruises, takes him into his car and drives him to a hospital. The film ends with end notes informing us what has happened after the trial. Larry was so traumatized that he left the successful Dramatics to become a church choir director.
I marveled at the way in which Krauss was able to get his fellow cops and the National Guardsman to go along with his extreme method of interrogation. This horrific sequence took me back to the 2015 docudrama The Stanford Prison Experiment in which a professor hired 24 students to pretend they were at a prison, with some serving as guards, and the others prisoners. Almost immediately the guards began to abuse their authority, and the “prisoners” meekly submitted. The make-believe guards became so abusive that the experiment had to be ended long before its scheduled time. If this could happen in a role play situation, it should be little wonder that real life wielders of power would succumb, especially when racism is present.
Although the filmmakers change many of the names and condense trial events, the script stays close to the facts, though no doubt speculating on certain details that were murky at the time. For source material, the filmmakers had John Hersey’s 1968 book The Algiers Motel Incident, and equally important, three of the victims, the white Julie Delaney, played by Hannah Murray, and the black security guard, Melvin Dismukes, portrayed by John Boyega, and would-be singer Larry Reed. They not only spent time with scriptwriter Mark Boal, but at director Kathryn Bigelow’s insistence, Ms. Delaney was on the set for consultation during much of the filming.
That the film is as relevant today in its depiction of racism among law enforcement officers is evident from Ms. Delaney’s comment, “It’s amazingly sad that things haven’t changed. I thought things would change in 50 years. I really did. I guess that’s my looking through rose-colored glasses.”*
At times the brutality, both physical and mental, is so strong that it is difficult to watch, but watch it we should. I write this despite the disturbing Huffington Post article “‘Detroit’ Is The Most Irresponsible and Dangerous Movie Of The Year.” The distinguished authors attack the filmmakers for omitting the historical background of the riot and treating the blacks as just victims without giving us any of their background. I agree that providing more context would have improved the film, but I do not accept their recommendation to skip the film. It might be flawed, but it nevertheless should be viewed and discussed by as many people as possible.
*For more see the article in Detroit Free Press “Eyewitness to horrific night depicted in ‘Detroit’ movie shares story” at http://www.freep.com/story/entertainment/2017/08/04/survivor-detroit-movie-kathryn-bigelow-algiers-motel/532497001/
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables.