3 ½ stars
It is impossible to watch “Detroit” without feeling overwhelmed by horror of what emerges on screen, awaking our vague recollections of the summer of 1967 when the Detroit riots were the main topic of all national news media. And because it is only dimly recollected after 50 years, we can forgive director Kathryn Bigelow (“Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”) and screenwriter Mark Boal for taking some liberties with the facts.
What we do know is following a raid on an unlicensed black after-hours club by the nearly all-white Detroit Police Department, black citizens were publicly rounded up and arrested which spurred a looting and arson spree in the predominantly black community known as the Near West Side. Governor George Romney called in the Michigan National Guard and President Lyndon Johnson also sent the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The rioting and chaos lasted five days, and at the conclusion there were 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.
The focus of “Detroit” is a little known incident at the Algiers Motel. In the film, we focus on several main characters. Disdukes (John Boyega) is a black security guard for a local shop where the riots are unfolding. He attempts to ease tensions between the black citizens and the police and predominantly white guardsmen and becomes enmeshed in the violence by being accused of the murders ostensibly committed by the Detriot police. In the midst of the riots, a local singing group called The Dramatics are about to go on stage at a crowded theater, knowing that a record contract may be in the offing if they perform well. But due to the riots taking place outside the doors, everyone is sent home. Ultimately, lead singer Larry (Algee Smith) and his some-time agent/friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) escape the chaos of the street and seek sanction in an $11 a night room at the Algiers. At the motel they meet two white party girls from Ohio, a black Viet Nam veteran, Greene (Anthony Mackie), and a trouble-maker, Carl (Jason Mitchell). Carl has a tiny starter’s pistol which he discharges, calling police attention to the motel who believe a sniper is housed there.
The local police are led by a sadistic racist, Krauss (Will Poulter) who immediately kills Carl and proceeds to terrorize the remaining guests in an attempt to locate the non-existent sniper gun. Green and Larry are horribly brutalized by the police and two more innocents are murdered by the police before they withdraw from the motel.
The power of the movie occurs in the endless interrogation and brutalization by Krauss and his cohorts of the several guests who survive a fate only slightly less than death. The camera is merciless in recording the terror and humiliation the police visit upon these people. In the end, Larry is near death and his friend Fred lays on a slab at the morgue.
The trial of the three white Detroit policemen, which more or less returns to recorded facts, takes place before an all-white jury presided over by a white judge. Although two of the officers on trial have confessed to the police murders, the judge throws out the confessions, the jury discounts the testimony of the witnesses who are maligned and abused by the defense attorney, resulting in no charges – not even assault – brought against the white criminal defendants.
Even today, fifty years after the riots, it is still an open wound to see how our justice system failed, and continues to fail, the black victims of crime, abuse and outlandish prejudice. It is enough to make me burst into tears, if not for the numbing effect of this powerful verdict on our society.
Just before the closing credits, there are small biographies of several of the main characters presented in the movie, testifying to the reality that many of those black lives were afforded very little value by a predominantly white society. The movie is more than 2 hours and 20 minutes long and is positively exhausting. But it reminds us of how far we have yet to go. In the Chicago Tribune of June 11, 1969, a very brief article tells of the acquittal of suspended police officer August. The article is one-eighth the size of the Montgomery Ward ad which ran next to it.