By: Lana K. Wilson-Combs
Not many movies have angered, frustrated, and made me as uncomfortable like “Detroit,”
the new film from Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow
(“The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”).
There are no feel-good moments in this volatile and riveting movie which centers around the Algiers Motel incident that took place in the Motor City on July 25, 1967 and the racially charged 12th Street Riot which resulted in the death of three black men and the beatings of seven black men and two white women.
The five days of civil unrest involved nearly 10,000 people and left Detroit--a city that was already plagued by high unemployment and crime--reeling. The police raid in Detroit is one of the largest race riots in United States history.
With “Detroit,” Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal
(“Zero Dark Thirty”), have crafted a film that is difficult to watch, yet masterful.
The film opens with famed painter Jacob Lawrence’s series of works depicting the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North. Moments later, the drama unfolds as police storm inside an unlicensed African-American club.
Partygoers are enjoying a night of celebrating the return of a well-respected Vietnam soldier named Greene (Anthony Mackie, “Captain America: Civil War”).
As police round up and arrest the club members and take them outside to waiting vans, a crowd of angry passersby and other patrons gather and start shouting, throwing bottles and rocks at the police.
Despite pleas for peace from young Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso, TV’s “The Mysteries of Laura”), the situation soon gets out of control.
Fighting breaks out between the police and residents in the community. The cops are soon outnumbered, stores set on fire, and just like that Detroit is under attack. Enter the Michigan National Guard.
Meanwhile, as properties and streets burn Larry Reed (Algee Smith, TV’s “The New Edition Story”), the lead singer of the up and coming group The Dramatics ("Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get”) are set to go on stage at Detroit’s legendary Fox Theatre. Instead, they and everyone else are asked to immediately evacuate the premises.
Larry, along with his friends Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore, “Collateral Beauty”) and Lee (Peyton Alex Smith, “Mad Money” and TV’s “The Quad”) try to escape the chaos outside by heading to the old, rundown Algiers Motel.
While there, they meet two young white women named Karen (Kaitlyn Dever TV’s “Last Man Standing”) and Julie (Hannah Murray, TV’s “Game of Thrones”) who are hanging out with their friend Carl (Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”). They talk, drink and discuss what’s going on around them.
Greene (Mackie) finds his way over to the motel which is being watched along with other nearby properties, by Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and the upcoming “Pacific Rim: Uprising.”), an African-American, private security guard who has been tasked with working a double shift to try and keep the peace.
With jittery cops strategically stationed all over the streets, Carl (Mitchell) is angered by their presence and does something stupid. He fires a toy starter pistol. The police believe the shot is sniper fire and they go off.
Seconds later, the National Guard, Melvin (Boyega) and local police officers Krauss (Will Poulter, “The Revenant” and “We’re the Millers”) and Demens (Jack Reynor, “Sing Street”), storm the three-story Algiers motel looking for who shot at them.
What happens next to the young men and women in the Algiers at the hands of the two police officers, is some of the most heart-wrenching and abusive form of harassment, intimidation and racism imaginable.
Krauss makes everyone inside the Algiers line up facing the hall wall and for hours he berates them and sadistically beats them. He even makes the young women strip naked and calls them whores for associating with black guys.
While I can’t say if Carl (Mitchell) hadn’t fired that starter gun things would have turned out different for everyone in the hallway that night. I do know that his actions didn’t help their chances one bit.
While the events surrounding the Algiers motel incident and ensuring riots are based on historical records, some information/documents regarding the case which went to court was disputed and some even disappeared over the years.
This left the film’s director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boals to use some creative license to tell the story. However, the essence of the brutal treatment perpetrated by the rogue police officers, is factual.
Poulter’s performance as Krauss is downright chilling. He’s a cop with no conscience. He has no problem planting evidence on suspects, lying about them and if need be just shooting them like he did to a kid who was running away from a store with a bag of stolen groceries.
And the terrible fate that Melvin, the security guard (Boyega) had to endure, if true, is beyond sickening and tragic.
Bigelow and Boals don’t sugar-coat the racism that percolates throughout “Detroit” which is what makes it so powerful.
The themes that the director addresses in the movie, particularly racism and police brutality toward African-Americans, sadly are issues that are as relevant today in 2017 as they were in 1967.
“Detroit” is a must-see movie.
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Look At This Trailer For "DETROIT"
Lana K. Wilson-Combs is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics’ Association (BFCA), the Black Reel Awards Voting Academy and a Nominating Committee Voting Member for the NAACP Image Awards.