By Tim Estiloz
50 years have passed since what’s historically known as the infamous 12th Street Riots devastated much of the city of Detroit in 1967, sparked by an avoidable incidence of overzealous police reaction and racial oppression. In the current era of Black Lives Matter, Ferguson and Trayvon Martin; some could legitimately argue that not much has truly changed in America a half century later.
By the conclusion of the 5-day long eruption of violent civil unrest, 43 were dead, 1,189 injured and 7,200 were arrested.
Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow ( The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty ) recreates on the screen, in visceral and horrifically riveting detail, the terrible violence of the riots in her new film “Detroit”. Bigelow and her frequent screenwriting collaborator Mark Boal create a powerfully unforgettable and chilling narrative that focuses on two aspects of the real-life events.
Detroit begins by depicting the spark that ignited the wider violent unrest of the riots. The police raid an after-hours bar in a black neighborhood celebrating the return of two locals from the Vietnam War. The raid quickly escalates as members of the overwhelmingly white Detroit police department use force to arrest many of the revelers inside. The neighborhood reacts in anger as store windows are broken, fires are ignited, stores are looted and the pent-up anger and shouts of rage towards the police spills over throughout the city. Ultimately, state police and National Guard troops occupy the streets in an effort to bring order to the city. Instead, the occupation only breeds more resentment, fear and anger to the city’s black citizens.
As this larger tableau of violence unfolds over Detroit, Bigelow then focuses the film’s attention on a smaller real life incident on the third evening of the riots, narrowing the wider violence in the city to a far more personal, direct and terrifyingly brutal example.
In one section of town, a black security guard, Melvin Dismukes ( The Force Awakens’ John Boyega ) steels himself to protect the store in his charge. Soon, he will find himself witness to a horrifying series of events.
Elsewhere, Larry Reed ( Algee Smith ) an aspiring Motown lead singer of a real life group The Dramatics and his friend Fred Temple ( Jacob Latimore ) take refuge from the street chaos by renting a room in the seedy Algiers Motel, where $11 a night gets them a room, a pool, girls, drinks and music. At first, the Algiers is a semi-peaceful haven away from the violence pervading the streets.
However, the calm takes an unnerving turn when Reed and Temple join a couple of girls and follow them to a room party. Soon, one of the young black teenage motel occupants they meet at the party foolishly shoots a blank starter pistol in the direction of the nearby National Guard from their upstairs window. The act brings the police and National Guard to the Algiers to raid the building.
What takes place over the next 40 minutes is one of the most harrowing depictions of real life brutality, humiliation and murder that will leave most audience members troubled, unnerved and perhaps angry long after the final credits roll.
A trio of local police led by a chillingly racist cop Philip Krauss ( Will Coulter in a brilliantly frightening performance ) line up the black occupants of the Algiers, their faces against the lobby wall, along with the two young white girls partying with the young men, and begin a terrifying barrage of interrogation, intimidating threats of death and perverse humiliation. Two of the patrolmen, enraged by the white girls being with the teenage black men, turn their rage on the women to humiliating effect as well.
In the end, three of the unarmed black teens are brutally killed, one by one.
Based on first-hand accounts and found documents about the evening, as well as a certain level of dramatic license, the horrifying event is brilliantly depicted by director Bigelow with intentionally unnerving realism, horror and fear. When the officers play a frightening “death game” with their hostages to gain a confession, the atmosphere of panic and fear is overwhelmingly palpable, effectively exhausting and completely unforgettable.
Bigelow’s depiction of the violence, while brutally honest, is far from gratuitous. Whether filming the rioting in the streets in intentionally chaotic cinema verite’ style; or reenacting the Algiers’ night of horror in tight claustrophobic “you are there” fashion, the realism hits you with the harsh blunt force necessary to almost feel the same fear as the victims. “Detroit” effectively demonstrates why Bigelow is one of Hollywood’s most talented directors and her work here is definitively award worthy.
Smith, Coulter and Boyega shine in effective performances that evoke the necessary fear and revulsion that each of their characters are intended to.
“Detroit” is not an easy film to watch. It’s not intended to be. However, in the racially troubled times we live in now, it is arguably a necessary film to watch to understand the history that fuels the divisions and tensions we experience and witness today.