“Detroit” – The definition of power: possession of control, authority or influence over others; a controlling group.
On July 23, 1967, a group of Detroit policemen raided a private gathering at the Economy Printing Company Building. In a very public display, white police officers forced their way into the facility and grabbed, mishandled and arrested several black patrons, because party organizers served alcohol without a license. With decades of racial tension already woven into the collective fabric of a frequently aggressive white police force and overcrowded black neighborhoods, the incident sparked outrage in the Motor City, which incited a riot. A five-day riot which resulted in over 40 people killed and 2,000 buildings destroyed.
In director Kathyrn Bigelow’s picture, she dramatically recreates this ferocious, large scale uprising by traveling 50 years into the past. Looters smash rocks through store windows and torch local businesses, and soon, city blocks are reduced to rubble, not unlike many scenes depicting Iraq in Bigelow’s Academy-award winning “The Hurt Locker” (2008). While some residents actively damage property and take merchandise, in turn, some police officers damage human beings and take lives, as this combustible powder keg of concrete, brick and racial inequality blows into another horrifying stain on race relations in the United States.
Bigelow weaves actual footage of this real-life, domestic warzone with her own staged creation, and the differences between the two feel negligible in a frightening, cinematic spectacle. As difficult as the riots are to digest, the true horror show appears in an ordinary hotel, a place without an angry crowd. On July 25 – Day 3 of the riots – no one staying at the Algiers Motel committed any violent acts, but the Detroit Police arrived and delivered a sick and brutal tragedy on the soil of a previously peaceful oasis.
“Detroit” runs for 2 hours and 23 minutes, but the events within the Algiers Motel purposely and agonizingly crawl for probably an hour during the film’s second act. Bigelow throws the audience, a nearby security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) and two teenagers, Larry (Algee Smith) and Fred (Jacob Latimore), into this now infamous urban inn. Earlier in the evening, the two teens were searching for shelter from the hurled rocks and raised billy clubs in Detroit’s streets, and for $11, they bought themselves some presumed safety at the Algiers. They meet two 20-somethings – Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) – and the girls introduce Larry and Fred to others – like Carl (Jason Mitchell) and Greene (Anthony Mackie) – staying at the motel as well, and weathering the storm.
The ferocius, stormy events which occur next are a twisted collection of ugly, racist moments from white police officers who exercise their power over a group of unarmed black men and two white women. As the cops – led by Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) – point guns, bark orders, force the men and women to face the wall, and randomly and routinely deliver beatings to squeeze information, Bigelow’s camera does not pull punches or provide any reprieve for the audience.
In a recent interview, Bigelow explained that she invited the real Julie, Melvin and Larry to the set to help reconstruct the events of the horrific night, and their fears and anxieties from 50 years ago certainly translate onto the screen. During these particular hours at the Algiers, one can almost feel the years of an uneven playing field and a city under siege for decades, as the black men always comply – through distinct layers of distress and tears – to the unrelenting white police officers. At times, one can easily imagine this particularly vicious 1967 power play on a southern plantation a couple hundred years ago, in Ferguson, Mo. today or quite frankly, take your pick on any place and time in America.
Now, the film could have ended at the motel on July 25, but it takes a surprising turn in its third act. At first, the direction is not entirely clear, but Bigelow eventually reveals an important fact in the denouement, a key person’s very personal, post-traumatic stress caused by the murderous events at the Algiers. With all of the jaw dropping scenes of suppression and rage throughout the streets of Detroit and the perverse use of authority within an ordinary motel, this one individual’s PTSD is both a subtle and powerful reminder that an abuse of power during a random July evening can trigger a lifetime of damage.