Director Kathryn Bigelow delves into re-telling the facts around the grisly acts of police brutality committed against African-Americans in 1967 at the Algiers Motel during one of the most violent riots in Detroit’s history. Two nights after the Detroit rebellion began, a report of gunshots in the vicinity of a National Guard staging area prompted the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police, the Michigan Army National Guard and a local private security guard to search and seize an annex of the nearby Algiers Motel.
“Detroit” feels like it just happened yesterday and, adding to the country’s growing unrest and call for authentic justice, it also feels like tomorrow’s headline news. Shot docudrama style, it delivers a visceral impact resulting in an intense theatrical experience that can leave a viewer limp. The atrocious events are shocking enough, but the way that Bigelow puts the atrocity front and center is nothing short of brilliant.
Pull back the complicated pages of history and there’s little question that in Detroit the white authorities were the bad guys, and once they went to trail and were found innocent, they got away with murder.
It started July 23, 1967, with a police raid on a popular Detroit after-hours bar in an African-American neighborhood where a group of peaceful friends were celebrating the return of two locals from the unjust Vietnam War. This gathering was peaceful, and then it was not, to the point where a local Black assemblyman, smelling the distrust brewing in the air, implored his constituents not to “mess up your own neighborhood.” Whose neighborhood—exactly—they did not own anything there. So began the intensive looting, and as the destruction increased more cops were sent in, including the National Guard, which was called upon to protect the police. Three days of roaring anger let loose and Detroit began to be compared to the Vietnam War, again where innocent people were being murdered for no reason other than political gain. Poor people as collateral damage
there and in America.
Our story is told, mostly, through the eyes of an enthusiastic young man named Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a young singer with a bright future. Scheduled to perform in the big leagues, he is refused this spotlight because of the brewing turmoil outside and the concert is cut short. Larry is devastated.
On this third night of rioting (July 25) the city grows more dangerous, and Larry and his reluctant buddy Fred (Jacob Latimore) take refuge at the Algiers Motel, a place with a pool and lax rules. There are two white teenage girls, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), who appear fearless and are kicking it with a wild card, Carl (Jason Mitchell). Julie and Larry hit it off, Fred is terrified and Carl plays loose and crazy with a small, harmless toy starter pistol.
A foolish act done for a laugh escorts in a long night’s journey into hell. This act results in the white police force overreacting, and they raid the hotel in the belief that there’s a sniper inside and will not back off without exerting maximum cruelty on their multiple (and innocent) suspects. Carl is immediately shot dead, while several others on the premises, including Larry and Fred, are shoved up against a wall and subjected to no end of physical and mental abuse.