Prior to its August 4 release, “Detroit” was already polarizing. Based on the initial trailer, and its title, one could have (rightfully) believed it was a movie specifically about the 1967 Detroit riots – which is why many people questioned the lack of a black female presence and participation being shown.
But the film primarily centers on a specific event – the Algiers Motel incident which occurred on the third day of the rebellion – and during which seven black males and two white females were held captive, assaulted and tortured by Detroit and state police, National Guardsman, and (disputedly) a black private security guard named Melvin Dismukes (played by John Boyega). Three of the young men – Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard, and Fred Temple – were killed during this incident.
A book entitled “The Algiers Motel Incident” was written by John Hersey and released a year after the event occurred, however Hersey’s condition of release was that his book and the interviews within would not be turned into a movie.
Needless to say, Hersey’s book isn’t used as cannon here, but Academy award-winning director and co-writer Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) and her award-winning co-writer/journalist Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) used in their research and additionally relied on court records, newspaper articles and surviving witness testimony to construct their story.
Detroit opens with an animated prologue written by Henry Louis Gates, with paintings by the late Jacob Lawrence, that explains the Great Migration of blacks from the South to North, the “white flight” that occurred afterwards, and briefly explains the racism and tension that grew between the police and black residents and subsequently led to the riots.
The film quickly shows the mistreatment and arrest of attendees at a speakeasy, which is documented to be the start of the riots on Sunday, July 23 1967, and briefly moves through a series of events, including the shooting of an unarmed looter in the back by officer David Senak (renamed Krauss and portrayed by Will Poulter), to arrive at the July 25 Algiers incident.
However, the pent-up angst and how it can easily explode into a rebellious protest, the infantilization of an entire race – an example being curfews and neighborhood limits – and the overall effects of having a perpetually racist and systemic violation of civil and human rights were given too rushed a presentation in this film.
So, when it’s named “Detroit,” and by inferring a focus on the “riots” without full consideration of the people involved in the movement, it does fairly open the door to the criticism mentioned earlier and much more.
Personally, without that proper context and allotment of time to empathize, I fear that those unaware of the Algiers story and viewing either with a privileged or prejudiced lens, will watch parts of this film and deduce, “If he/she would have only (fill in the blank), maybe a different result would have occurred.”
I do wish that more time was spent on Melvin Dismukes, as his story has been contested by witnesses who alleged that he participated more in the assaults than is shown in the film. John Boyega is believable in this role and plays it as intricately as the script allows. However, I don’t fully empathize with Mr. Dismukes and this film doesn’t depict any significant moments of emotional/internal turmoil that allowed me to on his behalf.
But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the moving performances by the cast including Jason Mitchell, Jacob Latimore, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie and Algee Smith – the latter once again shining, after his standout performance in The New Edition Story (Ralph Tresvant), as Cleveland Larry Reed the former lead singer of The Dramatics.
For better or worse, the movie will add to the conversation on race relations and police brutality that still is relevant 50 years later in this country. I don’t believe it’s as poignant as The Hurt Locker, but suffers from the same “gaze” effect as Zero Dark Thirty.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments once you’ve viewed family.
Until next thought, Thomasena