Director Kathryn Bigelow of Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty fame has again teamed up with writer Mark Boal, and in Detroit they have created another visceral masterpiece. If you’ve ever wondered what it would feel like to be accused of a crime you didn’t commit, while being verbally and physically abused by police officers for hours on end, here’s your chance. Bigelow puts the audience right in the firing line, and it’s intensely upsetting. Add the fact that the film is based on real events, and it becomes devastatingly powerful.
In Detroit in the summer of 1967, during the worst urban riot in US history, a group of African American teenagers stand up against racist police officers. The riot lasts for five days and begins with a raid on an unlicensed after-hours bar. This is just one situation that happened during the riot, but attempts are made to show the broader social context of the time by blending the dramatisation with archive footage of the rioting. The footage is seamless but a bit more context would have been helpful.
With such intense action, it could be difficult to create plausible characters, but the performances in this film are so strong that they rise above any lack of character development. Every actor in this ensemble cast plays their part with such pathos and depth that you know exactly who they are.
As the rioting begins, a young singing group, The Dramatics, is ready to give its break-through performance at a large Detroit venue. Lead singer Larry (Algee Smith) feels the excitement, as this is the gig that could change their lives. Just as they are about to go on everyone is told to leave the venue and make their way home for their own safety. Larry lingers and sings a line of his song to an empty theatre before being dragged away by the rest of the group. Out on the street the city is in chaos. The group gets separated, as police are rounding up and arresting people. Larry and his best friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) head for the safety of a nearby motel, The Algiers.
At the motel they meet the only two white people there, two girls about their age called Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). The girls take Larry and Fred to visit some friends upstairs, where in Carl’s (Jason Mitchell) room a small party is taking place. Carl cooks while music plays, and everyone is drinking. Carl doesn’t like these two newcomers, and decides to give them a scare. He takes out a small pistol and pretends to shoot a friend. Out the window Carl can see police and National Guard on the street, and decides to make them feel as afraid as they are, firing a few blank shots from his gun in their direction – a thoughtless act of bravado that would change the lives of everyone in the room.
John Boyega (star of Rogue One) plays security officer Melvin Dismukes, who accompanies a group of National Guard and police officers to investigate a suspected sniper attack. They go to the motel where they think the shots were fired from and a horrific interrogation ensues. The interrogation is headed up by police officer Krauss (Will Poulter), who takes everyone from Carl’s room for questioning. Krauss is a known racist, and threatens to kill anyone who won’t talk.
The films begins with an animated history of Detroit from the Great Migration that began in 1916 and over six decades saw millions of Southern African American people move north to find work in the industrialised cities. They lived in overcrowded project neighbourhoods while working in minimum wage jobs. In the 1950s the white population of Detroit started moving out to the suburbs and picketed against African Americans who tried to move into their neighbourhoods. But by the 1960s the African American population was becoming better off. They were angry about segregation and tired of the discrimination and lack of resources granted to their community.
The recently released documentary I Am Not Your Negro touches on this place in history when the American Civil Rights movement came up against brutally violent opposition. These films are confronting and important in Trump-era America. If a president can be voted in after promising to build a wall to keep foreigners out, then we’re reminded not to be complacent about racial intolerance.
The events at the Algiers Motel lead to a trial, and I found myself fearing the worst for the fate of Melvin Dismukes against the word of officer Krauss. This film is not just a story but a journey. It’s not an easy one to take but it’s worth it for the destination.