By Carl Kozlowski *
Depicting the 1967 Detroit riots and the brutal police response to the African-American uprising in that city’s streets, the new film “Detroit” serves as a stark reminder of the maxim that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Hitting the nation’s theaters nearly five years after the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, it depicts one of the worst incidents of law enforcement abuse imaginable and how the legal system basically allowed it to happen. It is a film that is starkly well-made and stands out from the crowd of lighter summer releases for having something to say.
Yet its extended depiction of absolutely harrowing psychological and physical abuse by police of both African-Americans and two young white women who were at a party with them makes it a very difficult film to watch as well.
The film draws viewers into the tension by setting up the history of the black-white relations in Detroit in an animated sequence depicting the Great Migration between 1910 and 1930, when millions of African-Americans fled the racist Southern states to try to start better lives in the industrial cities of the North. This turned into decades of disappointment as the white power structure there also found ways to hold people down economically.
With that explained, “Detroit” dives into a police raid of an illegal after-hours bar that is hosting a party for returning Vietnam veterans. As the cops forcefully arrest the African-American partiers, angry crowds quickly form to protest their brutal overreach, soon exploding into rioting.
The next morning, three young white cops are driving through the spiraling violence when one, Officer Krauss (Will Poulter), bursts out of the car to chase a fleeing looter and shoots him in the back. When the man dies soon after, a homicide detective warns Krauss that he’ll face murder charges, but sends him back on the streets anyway due to low manpower.
Meanwhile, the four young members of the soul vocal group the Dramatics are eagerly awaiting their turn to perform in a music showcase that could make their careers. But their hopes are dashed when police order the theater to be shut down as the riots approach the neighborhood, and lead singer Larry (Algee Smith) and his fellow member Fred (Jacob Latimore) decide to wait out the violence at the Algiers Motel, an oasis where a party is going full swing.
They meet two young white women, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), who lure them back to a room filled with other young black men who don’t appreciate the new arrivals. The National Guard has been called in to back up the police, and the party host Carl (Jason Mitchell) uses a non-lethal starter pistol to fire shots at a group of them from his hotel window as a joke to scare them.
Krauss, among the officers in the group, immediately leads a raid on the hotel in search of the gun. Thus begins the film’s harrowing centerpiece, an extended sequence of terror in which the trio of police take over the search and start torturing the group both psychologically and physically.
Caught in the middle of all this is a young black security guard named Dismukes (John Boyega), who brings the Guardsmen coffee in the hopes of being left alone as he guards a store overnight. But he follows them to the Algiers and soon finds himself trying to quell the tensions, torn between whether to risk his life stepping in and his moral anguish over telling the young victims of the brutality to comply with the search.
Their primary tactic is to drag some of the men individually to another room and pretend to shoot them if they don’t give up the gun, leading the others to believe their friends are being killed. Eventually, the sick game explodes into greater tragedy, leading to a trial that is stacked against justice being served.
“Detroit” is utterly terrifying throughout the police confrontation at the Algiers, with the African-American men beaten and made to believe they might die at any moment. The women are threatened and struck multiple times as well as being threatened with rape by the main trio of police, including a moment in which they are being forced to undress.
The film also has rampant profanities and racial slurs, and in one key moment, the officers mockingly force their detainees to recite prayers in order to not be shot or beaten further.
Yet there are glimmers of hope scattered throughout, including one character’s ultimate redemption months later.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have teamed up before to Oscar-winning effect on the 2009 Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker” and on “Zero Dark Thirty,” and use those films’ stark documentary-style approach to solid effect in setting up the tensions that led to the Algiers Hotel. Once inside with the cops engaged in their reign of terror, they manage to create a claustrophobic tension that is undeniably compelling but hard to endure.
As Krauss, Poulter delivers a performance that stands as one of the most vicious figures to be seen in years, and offers a portrait of how one man’s evil can infect those around him. He is counterpointed by Boyega’s Dismukes, seen as a man who did the best he could over a horrifying night but will remain haunted by it still not being enough.
The film also gives a human face to the victims of that horrific incident, showing Larry in particular as a man with dreams who just found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are quick moments in which a compassionate policeman or Guardsman are shown helping a person escape, but overall “Detroit” shows what happens when absolute power corrupts absolutely.
“Detroit” roots its message in one major city’s worst moments, but as we have seen too many times over the past few years, police brutality and unwarranted shootings continue to occur. This could just as well be called “Baltimore,” “Ferguson” or “St. Paul,” making this a film that is often hard to watch but which those with an interest in history and social justice issues may find compelling to view.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.