With so many black filmmakers telling their stories now, it seems odd that Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal would take on the saga of Detroit, concerning the events that unfolded at the Algiers Motel in 1967. There will be some in the black community who feel that this is not their task to undertake, not their message to send, and not a story they have any business telling. I’m certainly not going to talk anyone out of feeling that way – I can only talk about Detroit as a film, as a work of art, and as Bigelow and Boal’s latest examination of a deadly war zone. This war zone was right here in America, fought between cops and the very citizens they are sworn to protect.
We know that there are two Americas for white and black, and we know that this is especially true where the attitude of many cops are concerned. But white America needs to see what happened at the Algiers on that night in 1967, no matter who is doing the telling. Detroit will be, without a doubt, one of the most important films of 2017.
Detroit is the third collaboration between writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow and is by far their most challenging work to date. The horrors of Iraq was their first, where it was often hard to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad – all there was was violence and chaos. Zero Dark Thirty then took us inside the all-out pursuit of Osama Bin Laden, the torture at the hands of Americans that led us to him, and the brutal climax in Bin Laden’s hideout that terrorized women and small children. Such scenes of deliberate ambiguity are provocative, even if there is always the rush to judgment as to what they are supposed to mean.
Detroit is a film set during the uprisings of 1967, the deadliest in the country’s history, but it centers mostly on the little-known story of the Algiers Motel that would leave three men dead and a story of torture and abuse that ought to remain a stain on the city of Detroit, but at the time there was no justice because as we know there is rarely justice if an officer is doing the shooting. Detroit is a film that shows how little justice there was then, and how little there is now, for ordinary black citizens at the hands of law enforcement.
What sparked the riots was the rousting of a black-owned night club by the cops and what seemed like unjust arrests. The anger and combustion exploded on the streets, clearly from decades of this kind of shit, day in and day out. Buildings burned, windows broken, stores looted. The military rolled in with tanks. They shot first, asked questions later, and by the end it would become clear that the only violence going on that day was committed by law enforcement trying to restore some kind of order to a city burning – a fire that they had lit.
Though the uprisings were the backdrop, this film is about what happened that night in the Algiers Motel, with witness testimony so horrific it almost doesn’t seem real. There were shots heard in the vicinity of the hotel, so Deroit police swarmed the area. Because two officers had already been shot and killed during the rioting, there was more than the usual sense of entitlement and intimidation. After all, they were the victims, right?
The officers surrounded the motel and began rousing occupants from their beds. Next to the motel itself was a big house that could be rented for the night and that is where 17-year-old Carl Cooper, 18-year-old Aubrey Pollard, and 19-year-old Fred Temple were shot and killed. Boal and Bigelow piece together the events of that night leading up to each killing, imagining how they might have gone down; to date, no one has taken responsibility for nor has been found guilty for the killings, even though the fatal wounds were inflicted at close range by the kind of shotguns the police officers carried around at the time.
Detroit is not an easy film to watch. Bigelow has made many films that depict graphic violence before, like Blue Steel, Near Dark, and in some respects, The Hurt Locker, but here, stripped of the fictional elements that usually give viewers one degree of separation from the reality of violence, we are left with an ugly truth about our country.
While this is a brilliant ensemble work all the way around — including John Boyega, and Anthony Mackie — Algee Smith delivers the film’s best performance as one of the singers in an up-and-coming Motown group. Smith’s transformation is the film’s most pivotal because it isn’t just about surviving a night at the hands of racist cops – it’s about defining his identity in a world ruled by and rigged in favor of whites. He is forever changed because they reached in and found a way to kill his dreams, to kill the thing he was living for, the thing he wanted more than anything else. It’s the same shattering of ambition encapsulated so beautifully in the poem by Langston Hughes, “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?”
Bigelow’s camera acts as impartial viewer while Boal’s script indicts those who deserve it, making absolutely no bones about the right and the wrong here. It’s a story everyone should know. It’s a story that should not have been forgotten. It was a crime that someone should have had to pay for.
Even after all this time, a young black man can still get shot from running away from police officers. He can still get shot for holding a toy gun. He can still get shot for wearing a hoodie and his shooter found not guilty — especially if that shooter wears a badge. Detroit should be a film about what used to happen almost fifty years ago. But instead it’s a film that shows us the immortality of systemic racism that continues to this day, the ongoing and enduring injustice of people whose rights should be equal, whose names should be remembered, whose lives should matter – but tragically often do not.
No, Detroit isn’t an easy sit. Yes, it’s incredibly violent and painful. But it’s true. It happened. It takes a long-neglected incident and makes it urgent. Detroit is a stirring, unforgettable film.