As someone who grew up in the Detroit Metropolitan area, I’m always interested in films and books set in Detroit. Not that I ever went there, except to go to Tiger games. When I lived there in the ’70s it was a cesspool of human misery, and I believe things have only gotten worse.
The turning point for Detroit’s future was in July, 1967, when a race riot broke out and lasted four days. Forty-three were dead, 7,200 arrested, and 2,000 buildings destroyed (most by fire). The white flight that had already started accelerated, and the city, which was once the fifth-largest by population in the United States, is now the 18th. In 1950, the population was 1.8 million, today it is about 672,000, one third of what it was.
Kathryn Bigelow has made a film, simply called Detroit, that showcases the riot, or more specifically, what is known as the Algiers Motel Incident, in which police killed three young black men. I’ve got to imagine the Detroit Chamber of Commerce is real happy that a movie called Detroit is all about violence and police brutality.
I found the film enthralling, with the heart of the movie the night of the incident, which was the third night of the riot. The film begins oddly, with a cartoon telling us about the Great Migration. Then we see the start of the riot, when a blind pig (an illegal bar) is raided while throwing a party for two returning servicemen back from Vietnam. When everyone is arrested (all black), a crowd gathers and somebody throws a bottle at the police and that sets it off.
This part is rather sketchy, and jumps from “Day 1” to “Day 2” to “Day 3” so quickly I thought it was going awfully fast. But what screenwriter Mark Boal has done is rather clumsily introduced the Algiers Motel section. The motel, a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, was full of people that night. A singer (a brilliant Algee Smith) and his friend decide to stay there for the night, and take a room in an old house behind the motel called the Annex. There are bunch of young men there–I don’t know why, I guess it was a hangout. Smith meets two white women by the pool (it is unclear if they are prostitutes or just pretending to be). The girls taken them back to the annex.
One of the young men (Jason Mitchell) decides to egg on the police and National Guard by firing a starter’s pistol out the window. Naturally, the police and Guard take this seriously, and pinpoint it to that house. Three cops bust in, kill Mitchell without so much as a “put your hands up” and then line up everyone else against the wall. They are told that they must reveal the name of the shooter and where the gun is or they will all be killed.
This scene lasts about an hour and is dominated by Will Poulter as the chief sadist. Poulter, who looks kind of like Howdy Doody, is only 24, making the contrast severe–how could a young, fresh-faced guy be so sadistic? Also, Poulter had killed a man earlier in the day, shooting him in the back for stealing groceries.
The scene is harrowing, as Poulter and two other cops beat and terrorize everyone, including the two women (it didn’t help that they found two white women with a black man in the same room, even though nothing was going on). Observing is a black security guard (John Boyega).
Three people will end up dead, and the film ends, somewhat anticlimactically, with a trial. I won’t spoil it, but given that today it is almost impossible to convict a policeman for brutality, even when there is video evidence, the verdict is not surprising.
It’s amazing that this took place fifty years ago and is still extremely relevant. Though the film has its flaws (for one thing, nobody can say for certain what happened, so the script is making guesses and assumptions, which is why the officers involved, though their names were changed, are suing).
So, this will make not only the tourism industry of Detroit (is there one? Other than for sports or to tour Motown’s first building, there’s no reason to go) and policemen all over the country mad. It will also make the viewer mad, that people got away with this then, and are getting away with it now.