Historic America Reviews

Detroit: A Gripping Historical Drama

Detroit (2017), written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, dramatically recounts an incident in which three black men were allegedly murdered by police at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit Riot. Detroit grabs you and never lets go. Unfortunately, its subject matter might be a little too weighty for summer movie audiences. Bigelow, whose other films include The Hurt Locker (2008), K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), set out to make a film critical of white privilege, so certain elements have been changed to conform to this perspective. In some ways the actual events were much worse than depicted.

First, some context. In 1950, Detroit was a diverse, prosperous, and culturally significant metropolis of 1.85 million people. It was arguably among the greatest cities in the United States. By 1967, Detroit was 40 percent African American, but its police force was 95 percent white. Migration to the suburbs had already caused significant population decline. The 1967 Detroit Riot (also known as the 12th Street Riot) began around 3:15 a.m. Sunday, July 23, 1967, after police raided an illegal after hours party in the office of the United Community League for Civic Action at 9125 12th Street.

The riot lasted five days, ending on July 27. Michigan Governor George W. Romney sent in the National Guard and President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to help restore order. When the dust settled, 43 people were dead, 1,189 injured (including 493 police, firefighters, and National Guard members), and 7,231 arrested. 2,509 stores were looted or burned, with an economic loss estimated at $40 to $45 million.

Three men, Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.), 19, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), 17, and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), 18, were killed at an annex of the Algiers Motel, 8301 Woodward Avenue. Pollard was killed by Detroit Police Officer Ronald August (“Demens” – Jack Reynor), Temple was killed by Detroit Police Officer Robert Paille (“Flynn” – Ben O’Toole), and Cooper’s murderer remains unknown. Police officers involved in the incident were acquitted by reason of self defense at trial, so their names were changed for the film.

Two 18-year-old white women, Karen Malloy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Juli Hysell (Hannah Murray), were also present at the Algiers Motel that night. Detroit shows Officer Flynn accidentally tear off Juli’s minidress just before releasing the two into National Guard custody. In reality, according to John Hersey, author of The Algiers Motel Incident (1968), police officers stripped both women naked and called them “nigger lovers.” Filmmakers probably changed this scene in order to show Karen and Juli being given preferential treatment at the hands of white police officers.

I was surprised to learn Patrolman Philip Krauss, played by Will Poulter, is a fictional “composite” character (based on several people). Poulter, who played Kenny Rossmore in We’re the Millers (2013), disappears into this role. Everything from his hairstyle to his facial expressions makes him look like he stepped off the pages of a mid-20th century yearbook, as if the bully from A Christmas Story (1983) grew up and became a racist cop. Chilling.

Powerful images dominate the film. When a security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is taken into an interrogation room, you can see a handcuff dangling from a pipe and a discolored stain on the wall at the same level as his head. The movie doesn’t have to show violent interrogations took place–all it needs is this one brutal image. Boyega has been criticized as playing a flat, emotionless character, but I think Melvin was just a good guy trying to survive an incredibly dangerous situation. Real-life Melvin Dismukes told Variety the movie is 99.5 percent accurate according to his recollection.

While the filmmaking here is masterful, its message is less encouraging. At the end, Detroit reinforces the negative stereotype that being successful is somehow less authentic for African Americans. After the incident at the motel, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), member of soul music group The Dramatics, leaves the band after refusing to perform for white audiences (the United States was 88 percent white in 1967). Instead, he finds solace in performing worship music at a local all-black church. While there’s nothing wrong with community and religious service, it hints the answer to Detroit’s racial animosity is to withdraw further into racially segregated communities. We all know the tragic end of that story.

Despite some creative license with characters, events, and dialog, Detroit feels authentic, and its emotional impact is incredible. The settings, dress, and documentary style transport you back to that time, and not in a cliched, feel-good way. Although Detroit doesn’t disguise its message, it isn’t entirely one-sided, showing the destructiveness of the mob and the efforts of some white policemen and authority figures try to combat the excesses of racist officers. It’s by far the best historic drama of 2017.

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