In the summer of 1967, while the West Coast grooved to the Summer of Love, Detroit burned in five days of rioting that pitted the African American community against the arrayed forces of the Detroit police department, Michigan state police, and the National Guard. In her most potent film to date, Kathryn Bigelow reteams with screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) to stunningly recreate that time.
After efficiently setting up the situation from the beginning when the raid on an afterhours club sets off protests and limning the hair-trigger reactions of paranoid and often racist law enforcement, Bigelow zeroes in on the Algiers Motel, where singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) have gone to wait out the violence. It is there that cops, including the violently racist Krauss (Will Poulter) roust guests—including Larry and Fred—in search of a sniper, a pretext for hours of terrorism and torture.
To call the 45-minute-long scene disturbing is an understatement, as Bigelow captures the horror experienced by individuals caught in the web of rogue police; the violence, coercion, and malignant hate rained upon them under the direction of Krauss; and the actions of Black security guard Dismukes (John Boyega) who stands as a witness to the unfolding savagery.
While later scenes portray the aftermath of the riot and this particular incident at the Algiers, it is this central sequence that makes Detroit so powerful: impossible to look at and impossible to look away from. And while this all happened 50 years ago, it is far from ancient history. What happened in Detroit then speaks so much to our own era of civil unrest, police shootings, Black Lives Matter, voter suppression, and the Nazis and racists who would like nothing more than to undo the progress ushered in by the civil rights movement.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Detroit is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for August 18-25, 2017.