Your heart will break as you react with disgust. This was the America that we lived through in the 1960s.
Just as she proved with The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Director Kathryn Bigelow is a gifted director who shines her camera into the soul of America. With the spectacular Detroit, she takes the audience back to the summer of 1967 when the City of Detroit danced on the edge of collapsing in an explosion of racial unrest.
As most of us learned years ago, racial discrimination in our country has never been adequately addressed since the end of the Civil War. Slavery may have ended, but its legacy has always found traction. Think of the Ku Klux Klan, segregation, voter suppression and a long-time ban on interracial marriage and you have some idea of what black citizens have had to endure in the land of the free and home of the brave.
During the middle part of the last century millions of African Americans moved North in pursuit of both an improved quality of life and better job opportunities. Yet segregation was reinvented when Caucasians moved to the suburbs as the inner city became largely a black culture that was left to simmer and rot. Teaching the 5th grade at a public school from 1969-70, where all of the students were black, I had a bit of personal experience in this area.
Many cities in our country exploded in urban choas, and Ms. Bigelow gives us a stunning account of the violence that erupted in Detroit. As looting and vandalism increased, the nearly all white Detroit police force only poured gasoline on the fire. No one in a position of authority seemed to understand what was happening on the streets, and the rioters were consumed with hatred and anger after years of being treated as if they just stepped off the plantation.
What you see unfold in this mesmerizing film is a recreation of what actually happened at the Algiers Motel in downtown Detroit. Forced to leave a cancelled concert, Larry “Cleveland” Reed (Algee Smith) and his friend/adviser Jimmy (Ephraim Sykes) get separated from the other members of the singing group Dramatics and find a room at the Algiers to escape the street violence. In the process, police descend in armed force on the motel after they mistakenly believe a sniper was hiding inside. Ugliness erupts in a most brutal fashion, and you have to resist the urge to turn away in complete disgust.
With the exception of a black security guard (John Boyega in an unforgettable role), this is an all white police force. It is led by officers Kraus (Will Poulter) and Demens (Jack Reynor), two racist officers without an ounce of compassion. After having shot one of the occupants in the back and killed him, they pin five black men against a wall along with two terrified white women for a lengthy period of time. In the process, they beat and brutalize the entire group, and you know that not everyone is going to survive.
Algee Smith is terrific in his role as an aspiring singer whose life is forever turned upside down as a result of this experience. Ephraim Sykes is equally captivating, and you are left watching his personal experience with the suppressed hope that he somehow finds a way to escape. It is worth noting that Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray do a splendid job playing the two young girls accused of being prostitutes, and they both have the courage to angrily respond to the Gestapo-like tactics of the officers assaulting them.
While I don’t mean to ignore other performances, it is worth remembering Anythony Mackie in the role of one of the terrorized black men held at the Algiers. It is also worth noting the performance of John Krasinski as a defense attorney who later represented one of the officers at trial, and he brings dignity to a profession that I love as he argues to an all white jury for expected results.
However, it is one of the ultimate ironies of this film that Will Poulter stands out as an officer who will easily kill if he doesn’t get cooperation. Seldom will you ever be so fixated on an actor that you loathe, and you might remember his previous roles as Jim Bridger in the Oscar nominated The Revenant (2015), his contribution in the interesting sci-fi film The Maze Runner (2014) and his very funny performance in the underrated comedy We’re the Millers (2013).
Let me close with the observation that this is not a film that you will hunt down because you’re seeking to find some entertainment in the theater. Ms. Bigelow’s movie serves as a dramatic history lesson, and ignorance of our past makes its repetition inevitable.