Written by: Tora Shae
Though the title may be suggestive of a wider lens, the main focal point of Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’ is the gruesome incident occurring the night of July 25, 1967, at Detroit’s Algiers Motel. Through Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal’s screenwriting, we see the retelling of a historic story in which three young Black men lose their lives to racist police violence.
Bigelow and Boal make an effort to quickly build the framework for this incident by leading viewers through a timeline that hastily explains both the Great Migration and white flight. Jacob Lawrence’s timely paintings are used as a backdrop to this hurried narrative. While an amazing nod to the artist and an apt film choice, there is barely time enough for an appreciation of Lawrence’s poignant artwork before the timeline thrusts us forward. Bigelow starts the story at the incident that ignited the spark of Detroit’s 1967 uprising; the police raid of an unlicensed black bar on July 23, 1967. Police Treatment of bar patrons and onlookers after years of racial unrest is the final straw. Rioting and looting ensue.
Bigelow’s brief depiction of the uprising is a marvel. She grants the viewer contrasting glimpses of both the righteous anger fueling the flames of the uprisings and the heavy handed white police task forces sent in to “help save” a community it doesn’t understand nor empathize with. Through these glimpses, we are introduced to the main cast of characters whose lives are fated to intertwine on the night of the 25th.
John Boyega is Dismukes, a conflicted security officer trying to navigate the weight of trading his black life for a blue life. Will Poulter and Ben OToole are Krouss and Flynn, officers so clouded by their bigotry they’re unable to protect or serve anyone.
Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore are Fred and Larry, two musicians on the cusp of Discovery and fame. Hannah Murray and Katelyn Denver are Julie and Karen, two runaways with a very “innocent” fondness for Black music.
These dynamics all come to a head when a starter pistol is fired in the Algiers Motel by Carl (Jason Mitchell). The police and security swarm the building and it becomes a fight for the characters to make it to dawn. No hotel stayer, including Vietnam vet Green (Anthony Mackie), is exempt from the brutalities of the officers.
As the officers continue to abuse their power and abuse Black bodies, there will be a moment where you, as the viewer, will realize that you’re exhausted. There will be a moment when you decide you’ve seen just about all the dead and bruised Black bodies you can take and that you’d love nothing more than to get out of this hallway. You’ve got to. You can’t breathe, people keep dying, it seems relentless and you are just so…tired.
This is the subtle brilliance of the film. Bigelow creates an immersive experience that gives viewers the feeling of losing their power to racism’s insidious nature, if only for a moment.
The acting by every one of these stars is so fluid and effortless. These stellar actors are able to continue holding the viewer’s attention even after we’ve left the hallway and it’s clear Bigelow and Boal are unsure of how to wrap the story. The scenes that follow dedicated to the court case, the grief of the families, and lives of survivor feel like a poorly etched post script after the eloquent calligraphy dedicated to the hallway scene.
The accurate depiction of police fragility and violence in response to the perceived threat of Blackness could have been left to stand in its truth, but that might have been hoping for too much from ”well-meaning allies”. These scenes are punctuated with what seems like a need to “Not All,” whiteness and police. After his escape, Larry (Algee Smith) is met and taken to the hospital by a Police officer whose shocked appall is palpable when he asked “What happened to you? Who would do this to someone?”. Krouss (Will Poulter) is fired by his superior who declares him racist on his way out. This is quite the “noble act” considering the notable brutalities & murders of other Detroit police officers.
Another point of concern while viewing the film is the noticeable lack of Black female representation throughout the film. We are given a fleeting glance here and there of Black women such as, partygoers being pushed out of the raided night club, a front desk attendant (Samira Wiley) checking The Dramatics into the Algiers Motel; a confused mother wondering where her son (John Boyega) is headed off to; a shy girl getting a phone call from Algee Smith; sex workers waiting at a police station and loved ones grieving post incident. We do see Black women on screen, but they are very obviously background figures. Their appearances are so brief that it is almost impossible to consider their contributions to history or to dissect how their identity brings nuance to the story.
Some may argue that, as a viewer, most of our time is spent trying to escape the nightmarish hallway of the Algiers Motel with our friends alive and that the perspective of Black female characters was not an integral part of this story. However, we must continue to ask the question ”Is this the WHOLE story?” History, ESPECIALLY Black history, cannot be retold without the voices of the Black woman as accompaniment. Trauma does not live within one incident of racism. For so many painful years, Detroit’s systemic oppression was damaging the Black women of the city. They were just as fed up and they were there rising up against it.
Similarly, the pain of the Algiers Motel incident left that hallway even when some of those boys couldn’t and you better believe it affected the Black women in their lives. Black women are not demanding too much when we ask to see ourselves reflected within narratives we KNOW we were apart of.
‘Detroit’ introduces many to a story that had been hidden with the annals of history. It will ALWAYS be necessary to shed light on police atrocities upon Black lives and bodies. We just need to be sure that when these stories are told, everyone’s voice can be heard. I am hopeful that this may spark more rounded conversations and storytelling about the history of Detroit’s uprisings and the healing of its Black community afterward.
‘Detroit’ opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, July 28th.
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