There are three sure things about the Detroit film: it’s a horror movie, Algee Smith is a star, and who tells a story is often just as important as the story itself.
The name might make moviegoers think the film is an in-depth look at the metropolis that was once the hub of the auto industry and the birthplace of an amazing global musical force known as Motown, but Detroit is actually about one gruesome night in the Algiers Motel during the 1967 rebellion.
It was a night in which seven young Black men and two young White women were brutalized for hours at the hands of Detroit police officers, Michigan State police and National Guardsmen. They were allegedly there to investigate a sniper shooting, but no gun was ever found on the scene. Survivors of the incident say they were accused of everything from shooting, to pimping to “nigger loving.” By the wee hours of the morning, three Black teenagers (Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard, and Fred Temple) had been shot and killed by the tortuous law enforcement officials.
The officers accused of the murders were all acquitted at trial. Sound familiar?
Though the dead Black man-free murderous cop narrative is one that is all too common in America’s past, present and unfortunately future, many people do not know about this particular horrifying story, not even Detroiters after a certain generation.
Free murderous cop narrative writ large
Though the dead Black man-free murderous cop narrative is one that is all too common in America’s past, present and unfortunately future, many people do not know about this particular horrifying story, not even Detroiters after a certain generation. I was born and raised in Detroit and before watching this film and doing the research beforehand, I did not have a full grasp of the Algiers Motel incident.
I knew about the 1967 rebellion as a whole. My parents, aunts, and uncles (who were teenagers at the time) have recounted stories to me my entire life. Further, I grew up among the physical and socio-economic rubble of the rebellion. The year of the rebellion was a tinder box for race relations all over the country. At least seven race related rebellions and riots exploded that year. In Detroit, city cops’ rough handling of Black patrons attending an after-hours, unlicensed bar (a blind pig) proved to be the tipping point. There had also been rumors that the police killed a prostitute on 12th Street, which would be the starting point of the rebellion. Of course all of that was in addition to years of oppression, degradation, segregation, and economic brutality experienced by Black people.
Detroit’s 1967 rebellion lasted from July 23rd to July 27th. During those five fiery days, 43 people died, thousands were injured, and approximately 2,000 buildings and businesses were ruined. Governor George Romney (former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s father) and President Lyndon Johnson sent in state and federal troops, which meant that tanks, military planes, and combat weapons were being used to quash unrest in an American city.
‘Detroit’ a microcosm of the nation in 1967
The film Detroit tries to offer that context with statistics about the Great Migration and housing segregation at the beginning, a recreation of the blind pig incident, and splicing in actual footage from the rebellion. However, about half of the two hours and 23 minutes of Detroit is devoted to intense torture scenes in the Algiers Motel.
Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow employs her signature visceral style, which means the audience is subjected to watching White men extract blood, sweat, and tears from Black men with batons, guns, and brute force.
Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow employs her signature visceral style, which means the audience is subjected to watching White men extract blood, sweat, and tears from Black men with batons, guns, and brute force. There’s even a scene before the film gets to the Algiers Motel, where a Black man carting two bags of food out of a burned out grocery store is shot in the back by a police officer. That young man dies like an injured dog underneath a car. It is insufferable brutality depicted on-screen. Like 12 Years a Slave, Precious, and countless other Black pain narratives, Detroit is a film meant for one viewing and one viewing only.
Black Detroit was familiar with many forms of racism
A large part of the reason why Detroit is so difficult to watch is because of the stellar performances of the cast. John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Jason Mitchel, Peyton Alex Smith, and the entire cast turn in award-worthy work. The extraordinarily expressive baby face of Will Paulter as the main racist cop is now officially the stuff of nightmares. But the breakout star in the film is clearly Algee Smith who plays Larry Reed, who was the lead singer of the Dramatics just before they landed a big record deal. The Algiers Motel Incident curtailed his life’s path.
Detroiters have a particular finesse. Because so many of us have close relatives straight from the South via the Great Migration, there’s a sprinkle of Southern hospitality Detroiters have, along with a South/North awareness of the many forms of racism. Thanks to all the manufacturing jobs, there’s a good bit of blue-collar humility with more than dash of confidence and big city swagger. Smith nails this and it helps that his character is one of the few with a developed back story.
The lack of character back story and the focus on extreme brutality are the two points that make me wonder what a different director and writer (the writer, Mark Boal, is also White) might have done with this subject, especially creatives of color. One criticism of Detroit has been about the absence of Black women in lead roles. To be fair, the film spends the majority of the time at the Algiers Motel and no Black women were directly involved in that evening. However, that is because the writer and director chose to stay in the motel for an extended period of time instead of giving the audience more about the actual lives of these men and women. Surely, Black women would have more screen time had more wives, mammas, girlfriends, sisters and the like been included.
Can Whites effectively tell Black stories?
Also, the film would have been richer in general with more back story. Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, who was a Black security guard who somehow ended up at the Algiers Motel that fateful night even though he was supposed to be guarding a store across the street. Dismukes is still alive and had conversations with Boyega. Yet and still, the audience does not get enough about Dismukes’ motivations for his actions that night. That’s the type of nuance that a story like this deserves.
People are capable of effectively telling the stories of other races or cultures. Steven Spielberg did an amazing job with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Imagine if the screen adaptions of Walker’s work had been handled by the incomparable Julie Dash? She is the genius behind Daughters of the Dust which was inspiration for Beyoncé’s Lemonade. So, even though someone talented and respectful can do a great job with such material, a talented person who was born into said culture will have much more insight and layers to offer. That creates a richer story.
In 1968, a white award-winning journalist named John Hersey published The Algiers Motel Incident. Hersey spent months interviewing those directly involved in that night and their loved ones. He also pored through the litany of court documents that led to the officers’ acquittals.
In the first section of his non-fiction book, Hersey contemplates how to present the colossal amount of information he has collected and he says:
“The events could not be described as if witnessed from above by an all-seeing eye-opening on an all-knowing novelistic mind; the merest suspicion that anything had been altered, or made up for art’s sake, or for the sake of effect, would be absolutely disastrous. There could be no ‘creative reconstruction.’ Doubts about chronology could only be revealed, not resolved.”
Books and movies are two very different platforms, but I wish that Bigelow and Boal had employed more of Hersey’s thought process when it came to presenting the events of that night.
Would I recommend seeing this film? I would give a reluctant ‘yes,’ but only if you can stomach the brutality and if you want to see top-notch performances from some of today’s most brilliant Black talent. If you want to know more about what actually happened at the Algiers Motel, go buy the Hersey book from your closet book retailer or check it out from the library. If you want to know more about the 1967 rebellion in Detroit, watch the Detroit Free Press documentary 12th and Clairmount. For an innovative look at how the 1967 rebellion impact today’s Detroit, take a look at this series created by native Michigander Noah Stephens called The People of Detroit: 50 Years Later.