A hard-hitting look at a shameful episode.
History can be the inspiration for amazing filmmaking. While we currently have the courage and devastation of Dunkirk in theaters, Detroit goes back into the past with far fewer warm feelings but much more modern-day relevance.
Critically-lauded director Kathryn Bigelow jumps back five decades to a time when racial tensions were literally on fire in this country, and one of the greatest cities this nation has ever created was the backdrop to the original sin of these United States: systemic racism enforced by power and violence.
The movie is really four stories in one, a narrative device that would seem pedantic if the material wasn’t so compelling. An initial overview shows the rebellions that were taking place in several cities in the late 1960s, all centering around black communities and the injustice they were forced to endure.
Once the camera moves onto the streets of the Motor City, we see civilians and police all trying to cope with increasing violence and arson throughout predominantly black neighborhoods. Familiar faces continue to pop up, setting the stage for an ultimate confrontation.
For the boys in blue, it becomes apparent quickly that Krauss (Will Poulter) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole) are loose cannons, enjoying their legal authority to coerce and command. Before long, Krauss has committed a very serious offense, and the story is just getting started.
On the neighborhood side, we quickly fall in with a musical group, up-and-comers The Dramatics, a project their members hope will land them on Motown Records, if they can survive the chaos around them.
After the cancellation of a concert, lead singer Larry (Algee Smith) and his best friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) retire to the Algiers Motel to spend the night and have a little fun. Soon enough, they fall in with some other young people, including some girls from out of town, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever).
Stuck in the middle of these two seemingly warring factions is Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), an African-American man who works security for local small businesses. He’s a straight shooter but hopes to never use his gun. It’s his straddling of these two worlds that gives him a glimpse into the terror to come without having to experience it himself.
Eventually, the film comes to its central plot line, the events of July 25, 1967, centered around this cast of characters and the Algiers Motel. In a sequence that seems to lose all track of time, the police, including Krauss and Flynn, round up a group of motel guests and proceed to interrogate and abuse them in search of supposed sniper.
In turns of violence both emotional and physical, the cops beat and threaten the group, which now includes an ex-airborne ranger (Anthony Mackie) and others. Before the night is over, more than one of them will be dead, and a coverup will be in the works.
A blow-by-blow account of such an incident could easily be lurid or voyeuristic like the torture porn movies of years past, but it is to the credit of everyone involved, both filmmakers and actors alike, that it never falls into any such temptation. The performances are so real and so raw that it’s impossible to dismiss or ignore what’s on the screen.
In Detroit’s final act, a courtroom drama unfolds, and while Law & Order has trod this ground a million times before, seeing the injustice heaped on these victims isn’t easy to watch. It’s insult to injury, but not surprising to say the least.
The events of Detroit took place 50 years ago, but Bigelow doesn’t need to flash current headlines on the screen to remind audiences of just how far we haven’t come. Police violence continues to beguile and bedevil communities of color across the land, and no change appears to be forthcoming.
It’s to her credit that she doesn’t bash us over the head with this fact of modern American life, but it will only be to ours if we watch, listen, and remember that while the past is prologue, in the presence of courageous people, it doesn’t have to be.