In July of 1967, the city of Detroit spent five days enduring the 12th Street Riot, sparked by the raid of an unlicensed bar in a black neighborhood by a mostly white police force with a lengthy history of brutality and discrimination. Barely three days after that raid, countless buildings had been burned to the ground, dozens had died, and a state of emergency had been declared, in hopes that thousands of Army and National Guard troops would be enough to stifle the unrest. Amid the chaos, several young residents sought refuge in the Algiers Motel and a house that had been annexed to the building. When nearby police heard gunfire (later discovered to be from a starter pistol) from the building they indiscriminately fired at it, stormed in, lined the patrons against a wall, then prejudicially interrogated and assaulted them for hours. By morning, three teenagers at the motel were dead.
The night in the Algiers is where Kathryn Bigalow’s (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) film spends the bulk of its nearly two and a half hour runtime. It’s a challenging story to tell, between the complicated historical context in which the event is set and how eyewitness accounts conflicted with official reports from the police involved. Partnering again with screenwriter Mark Boal, Bigalow’s film is at once large in scale and intimate, offering us an overview of the city’s racial tensions that led to that fateful night before it pushes into the lives of those involved as the story coalesces.
However, “Detroit” is not a character study, nor does it need to be. We don’t need to delve wholly into any single character to feel their pain, as the gut-wrenching way the events unfold inside the motel are more than enough to engage anyone with a sense of humanity. As with Zero Dark Thirty (and unlike The Hurt Locker), the film puts us alongside the individuals involved, rather than in their heads, allowing the film to give us some much needed context. If we were limited to the headspace of a single character, the film would not be able to pull back far enough to show us the relevancy of the riot, the multitude of individuals involved, and the abominably biased investigation and trial that ensued afterwards. It’s crucial that the film be able to do this: The systemic issues that fed into the Algiers Motel incident are lessons we need to remember, as is the terrifying power of unchecked discrimination. Bigalow’s film shows us both, unflinchingly.
It’s that lack of flinching that has created the most controversy.
“Detroit” does not shy away from violence, and with Barry Ackroyd’s fly-on-the-wall cinematography, you may as well be in the room yourself. It’s a relentlessly uncomfortable space, made all the more so by the monstrous police officer commanding the proceedings (played to chilling effect by Will Poulter). Leads Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Hannah Murray, and Anthony Mackie all give engrossing performances, with Smith and Latimore particularly top-notch as teens-turned-aspiring-Motown-singers, and it’s heartbreakingly real to watch their characters’ innocence smashed so effortlessly by the powers that be.
However, “Detroit” does falter after the Algiers incident. In reality, the court proceedings were a mess of lies, conflicting accounts, and judiciary bias that lasted months; it would easily take an additional film to fully cover the community’s outrage at seeing police brutality and prejudice excused in such public fashion. “Detroit” haphazardly tries to shove all of that into the last half hour of its runtime, rendering the final act dramatically underwhelming, especially given the intensity of what came before in the motel.
Many of us have never had to experience anything even remotely like the 12th Street Riot or the discrimination that led to it, and some of us will never know what it truly feels like to spend a lifetime being oppressed while the world watches on, indifferent. “Detroit” won’t change that, but it’s a blunt reminder of how quickly things descend into physical terrorism when ignorance is given power and when ideas of racial superiority are allowed to fester. The events at the Algiers took place fifty years ago, but they could not be more relevant today.