Detroit, set in July 1967, 24 years after the Detroit race riots of 1943, begins when an African American detective, Officer Frank (Chris Chalk), leads the raid of an overcrowded ‘blind pig’ (illegal club lock-in) on 12th Street, organised to celebrate the safe return of two African American war veterans. Someone from the growing crowd of onlookers hurls a petrol bomb towards the authorities, triggering civil unrest, looting and vandalism across 100 square blocks of the poorest African American neighbourhoods. It lasts five days.
A day later, we meet Officers Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole), policemen assigned to patrol the rioting streets. Krauss is especially reckless, and shoots a fleeing, unarmed rioter in the back. He is allowed back out on duty.
Next, a four-piece singing group, The Dramatics, are in Detroit to hit the big time. After an enforced curfew is imposed on the city, their gig is cancelled. Lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and manager/promoter Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), are separated from the rest of the band, and end up at the Algiers Motel, a mile east of 12th Street. Escaping the chaos outside, Reed and Temple find themselves invited by two white teenage girls, Julie Ann Hysell (Hannah Murray) and Karen Malloy (Kaitlyn Dever), to the room of a group of African American teens, including Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) and Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.),
Across the street, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is at his night job as a uniformed security guard in a local convenience store. Watching the city steadily fill with National Guardsmen and Army Paratroopers, Dismukes decides to ingratiate himself with those stationed nearby, making coffee for them to ensure he and his colleague are not shot or arrested by mistake.
With the central characters set up, Detroit focuses on events that unfolded at the Algiers, after Cooper brandishes a harmless sporting starter pistol and fires a couple of rounds through the hotel window in the direction of the National Guardsmen near Dismukes’ store. They assume it’s a sniper, and return fire. The shots are reported to the police, and Krauss, Demens and Flynn are dispatched to the Algiers with Guardsman back up. Dismukes decides to follow them over. So begins a long dark night which ends with four unarmed African American young men badly beaten and three dead.
Detroit reunites director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, after their successful collaborations on Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008) and Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty (2012). It’s another original screenplay from the writer, and has been hailed as a visceral, claustrophobic, unflinching exposure of one of America’s shameful secrets, and essential viewing.
Boal began the project around mid-2015, commissioning a research team, consulting documents, police files, and historical records, including John Hersey’s 1968 book The Algiers Motel Incident. He interviewed survivors, including Larry Reed, and riot participants, police, military personnel and Melvin Dismukes, to present a fictional account of what happened to the six teenagers and an army veteran. Dismukes also acted as a consultant on the film and helped shape the story. Admitting that he took poetic license with a lot of what is unknown or disputed, Boal says that he built the script, “on a sturdy base of journalism and history,” whilst taking on the “responsibility of being the creator of a tale, of transforming these raw materials into a drama.” Yet, Detroit is a dispassionate, ambiguous film in which the police, rioters and murdered young men have been somewhat balanced out with dismal flaws and unlikely actions.
The cast all produce good, committed performances. British talents Boyega and Poulter both give typically strong turns – impressive, with their being particularly removed from the source material. But, ultimately, the actors are not given much to work with. You will, of course, dislike the main police trio, led by Poulter’s Krauss. But, by the end, you don’t feel much emotion for the the rioters, nor the African American men lined up and tortured that night. We learn nothing about them, except that two of them hunger for fame, and the others have a partiality to partying and a penchant for free-spirited white girls!
In an interview with Variety, Dismukes maintains that he involved himself only to help calm things down and act as peacemaker . He must have explained this to Boal’s, yet, his on-screen portrayal is the most ambiguous as he makes several inexplicable decisions, including actually lying to the police at one point. This leaves us with no clear indication as to what exactly the point of his being there was. ‘Show don’t tell‘ is of course an important rule of film making. But, Bigelow robs Dismukes of any agency, choosing instead to show him in quite a bit of his limited screen time, just standing there. It’s confusing and frustrating – a total waste of Boyega’s talent, which you are reminded of when he does get a chance to act. It’s also a waste of Boyega’s star power to have what is essentially a lesser character placed so prominently in promotional images.
In considering the police motivation in acting with such brutality, anyone who has ever watched an American police procedural will understand that being shot to death is their number one fear, and ‘shots fired’ comes with probable cause to search and detain suspects. So, spurred on by the thought that one of the black male detainees are hiding a deadly weapon, Krauss repeatedly asks where the gun is. Yet, despite most of them knowing of Cooper’s prank, no-one tries to explain the innocence of what happened and, quite conveniently, no-one explains the shattered glass and bullet holes from Guardsmen’s returned fire, either. It’s not until Julie is assaulted, away from the main group, that she mentions the pistol prank almost as a throw away comment to Officer Flynn, who really isn’t listening at this point. Neither Dismukes, nor the accompanying Guardsman who are within earshot, do anything with that information. Oddly, this is also the main scene containing racist insults.
Detroit’s tagline “It’s time we knew” is therefore misleading, as the film leads you to ask, ‘knew what?’ The message is really not what you think it’s been set up to be! Boal and Bigelow appear to have used the considerable leeway that ‘disputed accounts,’ and knowledge of the late 60s social climate could have given them, to make creative choices which answer very few questions, whilst portraying African Americans as helpless hedonists (people who love a good time) who make bad decisions, and white law enforcement being ‘provoked’ into extreme actions!
Though the fear and psychological pressure is well-paced, Detroit seems to shy away from the intense racism of the time and the degree of violence used on those kids – actual events are recorded as the three teens were ‘lined up, badly beaten and killed’ . Michigan is not a particularly southern state, but, in 1967, 45% of the Detroit Police Department (DPD) working in black neighbourhoods were considered to be “extremely anti-Negro” and an additional 34% were “prejudiced.” This really doesn’t make it onto the screen. Boal says that he tweaked the dialogue to make it more appealing to today’s audiences, to strike a middle ground “between period authenticity and contemporary relatability,” and took dialogue verbatim directly from documented accounts, “where possible.” That could mean anything from 0.1-100% of the dialogue! Given the few scenes with racist language, it would seem to be in the lower percentage.
In fact, after allowing Krauss back out onto the streets, we are later gifted some randomly kind-hearted Guardsmen and senior police colleagues who are able to rise above the documented, pervading racism and beneficently try to make the three main perpetrators accountable, one even asking a clichéd, “How could anyone do that?“!
This fictional account using the real African American names from recorded events, with fictionalised white antagonists, particularly Krauss, and ‘tweaked’ dialogue, introduces immediate subconscious bias into how you receive their words and actions. And we are manipulated further, not artfully, but blatantly. For example, the start of the riot is presented to look like it could be traced back to one African American detective who led the 12th Street raid, and who we never see again! But, in 1967, of the 5500-strong DPD, only 100 were African American. And, in an interview with Detroit Free Press, white police officer Anthony Fierimonte is reported as ‘The officer who led the raid on the blind pig that ignited the riot’ ! This version of events, seeminly based on shaky journalism and a disregard for history, manages to underplay the police raid as being the inciting incident, replacing real-life initial rocks and bottles thrown at the police arresting all 82 clubbers, with a petrol bomb into a store with the intention of looting. (For context, I spoke to a seasoned English journalist after the screening I attended, who said he wasn’t sure what the opening scene was about!)
The police are then given reasonable cause to search for a firearm, and appear to use more psychological torture than physical or racist abuse on the terrified teens, who haven’t the sense or nerve to tell the truth... which could be viewed as reasonable grounds to keep asking, apply more pressure, to get angrier and push things further to find the gun… Then, we are presented with a young white girl who, having been insulted and assaulted by a police officer, is allowed a moment to show more backbone and sense than all of the African American men (including a soldier) whose lives were most at risk. We have a security guard who involves himself, seemingly with no demonstrable agency, plan or intention, and, throughout the film, they rarely use the word ‘riot‘, but instead, call it a ‘rebellion‘. It is one of the labels used to describe actual events, but it seemed out of place in a modern history. ‘Riots‘ are generally accepted to be rooted in civil protest. ‘Rebellion‘, justifiable or not, conjures up the image of slaves every time I hear it! And, consistent with this underlying insinuation of police provocation, when Temple makes an honourable decision (after everyone else has done the opposite) and seals his fate, a collective groan from our surrounding (and predominantly white) audience went up, signalling that they had been further manipulated into thinking something like, “Oh no! Now he’s done it!” more or less.suggesting that he provoked what happened next!
Ultimately, Detroit feels like another wasted opportunity from which Americans on either side of their continued national unrest, can emerge essentially unchanged. As we get to the obligatory sterile on screen word conclusion of, “X went on to…” we are left none the wiser as to why Detroit erupted into violence in the summer heat of ’67, or how African Americans might have been changed as a result. Instead, we must endure a final, annoying church scene, which might have been rooted in fact, but was so clichéd, it seemed like a lazy afterthought, particularly when there was the opportunity to conclude the film with such facts as the membership in Pastor Albert Cleage’s church of the Shrine To The Black Madonna, Detroit, grew substantially in the riot’s wake, promoting the idea that black religion should re-interpret its message in terms of the need of the Black Revolution; that the riot is considered to be one of the catalysts for the Black Power movement; or that 12th Street was re-named Rosa Parks Boulevard.
And whilst the film makers do admit to there being conflicting accounts of what really happened, it is not even suggested that it resulted from the severe post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt the victims most likely suffered, not the implied intractable lying or trying to cover anything up! The survivors never voluntarily went to the police, and were effectively intimidated into silence not just in the immediate aftermath, but, again most likely, during the investigation and court hearings. The dead bodies were reported the next morning when the motel owner discovered them on his property!
So, the problem with Detroit is not about a white female (Bigelow) telling this story from a script penned by a white male (Boal), it’s about how they interpreted the available information and why they chose to tell it and cast it in this way.
In 2017, the 50th anniversary of the events, no-one has been convicted of the Algiers Motel killings.
Detroit hits UK cinemas Friday 25th August 2017
Birds Eye View presents Detroit screening + A&Q at Picturehouse Central Tue 29th Aug – book here.