Opening 23 Nov 2017
In the 1960s, Detroit, Michigan was the fifth largest city in USA. In July, temperatures easily climb over 90-Fahrenheit (32+ Celsius). And, liquor laws/licenses were strict, with police raids on after-hours drinking clubs routinely carried out. Unforeseen circumstances played a hand during one such search/roundup, inciting the 12th Street Riot on July 23, 1967. The worse racial disturbance to rock the country yet ricocheted to a tragic episode at the Algiers Motel two days later. There, a level of brutality was perpetrated against the black community by a small, disgruntled faction of those charged with protecting the city’s citizens.
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, director and writer respectively, construct a realistic, well-structured account of the escalation leading to this tragedy based on currently available material. Algee Smith as Larry, cofounder of The Dramatics who aspired to sing the group to a record contract; Will Poulter powerfully depicts the Officer Krauss character typifying cynical, hypocritical subordinates racial antipathy; John Boyega/Dismukes, whose ambitions and leadership nose-dive trying to intercede, head the commendable cast. Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is admirable, as is William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon’s astute editing that includes archival material.
Detroit begins with an illustrative history lesson starting in Africa to the present: “The promise of equality for all turned out to be an illusion.” Certain license is taken with the story (two Dramatics members are omitted at Algiers), and representations, e.g. when police and National Guard assemble Algiers Motel residents in a hallway; nevertheless intense, nerve-racking. Though the case was never investigated, even at 143 minutes the trial section is rushed, while the conclusion drags. Instead, Bigelow inserts Black Cards at the end – pay attention to them for missing details.
As consultant to Bigelow, Melvin Dismukes was finally able to have his voice heard and thinks the Algiers and rioting portrayals very accurate. One of the two white women at Algiers, Juli Hysell (Hannah Murray plays her character), was special consultant on the film. When writing his 1968 book, The Algiers Motel Incident, John Hersey had access to participants—victims and law enforcement, forensic reports, et al.—that Boal referenced. At a time when civic morality is under pressure and racial toxicity is worsening, particularly in USA, Detroit falls short in generating provocative interest. Still, it is an important film and worth seeing, because this infamous case scorched its imprint on the tawdry, racist side of American history. (Marinell Haegelin)