Fifty years ago, three young men were killed in a night of police violence at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit riots, triggered by the police raid of an unlicensed bar that led to dozens of arrests. The details of what occurred at the motel that night may be bleak and legally disputed, but the consequences, and the context, for their unfolding are undeniable. “Detroit,” a narrativized account of the Algiers Motel incident, would like us to recognize that violence does not happen in a vacuum — neither does history, neither does the present.
The film opens with several animations of the historical context for the riots that took place in 1967 — this sets the tone for the rest of the film, which relies deeply on context. Although “Detroit” dramatizes certains aspects of the event (as noted in a closing message), the use of photos and film clips from the era successfully cultivates a sense of fidelity to the truth.
Integral to this mission are the voices of those who were actually there. Actor Algee Smith portrays Cleveland Larry Reed, a young singer in The Dramatics whose big break is disrupted by riots. Smith has stated that his highest priority was staying true to Reed’s story, especially after meeting him in the final weeks of shooting. The film is built on an understanding of what led to the riots, which defines the more than two-hour film and its use of archival images to anchor this story in reality.
Academy award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and writer-journalist Mark Boal have collaborated on other stories regarding pieces of the past that are understood peripherally, but typically not on the terms of folks who lived them. “Detroit,” like “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” seems adamant on bringing an “American tragedy,” to quote Bigelow herself, to the fore.
“Detroit” is intently focused on establishing the perspectives of several of its ensemble characters. We spend the first thirty minutes of the film following Reed, Fred (Jacob Latimore) and The Dramatics, a group of young soul singers; Dismukes (John Boyega), who works two jobs and tries to ease agitation while keeping a low profile; and Krauss (Will Poulter), a racist cop who had already illegally shot a man in the back before working the night of the Algiers incident. While Fred, Reed and Dismukes are all named for and based on real people, Krauss and the other policemen are fictionalized interpretations. The ability of these young actors to portray such raw fear for so much of the film is remarkable.
In essence, the first quarter or so of the film establishes the teenagers’ youthful innocence, Dismukes’ constant entrapment and Krauss’ conscienceless racism. It also establishes systemic complacency of law enforcement during the riots, which — both in the film and in reality — found all three cops “not guilty.”
All of this exposition gives us time to develop a sense of the times and affection or revulsion towards these characters, but makes them feel one-dimensional. Although the film has done its due diligence in terms of the event, it reduces its characters to categories of powerful and powerless. Because the film’s scope is a traumatic scenario, each character is seen expressing a single extreme emotion for most of the film: terror and/or rage, leaving little space for outside development or nuance.
There is a grittiness and grain to “Detroit” that brings forth a 1960s energy and a certain authenticity to the time period. From the beginning, several scenes in “Detroit” seem hand-held or shot with a steadicam — an expression of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s style — which creates a sense of tension that only builds as we arrive at the Algiers Motel, 30 minutes into the film. The camera’s constant movement, particularly in close-ups and small spaces, is incredibly effective in creating anticipation at the start and inescapable claustrophobia as the violence persists.
That technique of near-constant close-ups may be effective filmically, but it’s not without moral dilemma. Much of the film is spent immersed in violence at the hands of police and state military. After the riots in Detroit began, city and state police — as well as the state national guard — were in the streets. Thus, citizens were not only confronted with police militarization — in 1967 only approximately 5 percent of Detroit police, but 40 percent of the population, was Black — but de-facto military presence as well.
Violence is inevitable in this story, it cannot be ignored or watered down without erasing the brutality and injustice that occurred. But, a camera that looks on closely as the last tears fall from murdered men’s faces indicates a willingness on the part of the filmmakers to wring maximum horror out of a night that was horrific enough already. This is further complicated by the fact that the cinematographer, screenwriter and director for this film — despite all their research — are white.
Disambiguation seems central for most of “Detroit,” but not all of it, because some narrative threads are left hanging. What followed after that night feels less clear as the film concludes. While it is clear that none of the three white cops were held accountable for the deaths of the three boys, what remains unclear in the film is Dismukes’ fate. At one point, the Detroit police force blames him, a security guard with a shotgun (just like the cops), for the boys’ deaths. We see him sit next to the cops at the trial, as if he were being tried for the same crimes, but Dismukes’ legal fate is never clearly described — odd, for a film that seems intent on narrativizing — until the end of the film, when we’re given “where are they now” updates on the real-life characters.
“Detroit” is debuting at an urgent moment — although, arguably, the reality of our present moment has always been the reality. Thus, it carries immense responsibility. In many ways, this film is up to the task: it appears that the participants in its production have done their due diligence, which results in a work influenced by survivors’ voices with incredible weight.