Detroit; 142 min; Rated R
How to describe a complex and harrowing film that captures a July night in Detroit? The year is 1967. The police raid an illegal after-hours club on 12th Street and Clairmont. It’s a welcome home celebration for returning Vietnam vets. All in the club are black.
As the partygoers, men and women, are forced outside to wait for soon-to-arrive wagons to take them to jail, a crowd of African-Americans begins to form. Their anger and resentment against the bust and the police is palpable and soon becomes threatening. Rocks and bottles are thrown.
And so the fuse is lighted for what will devolve into five days of looting, burning and confrontations between the black community and the local police, the state police, and the National Guard. Some 43 people are killed, of which 33 are black; 1,200 are wounded; and 7,200 are arrested.
In the opening set-up to “Detroit,” writer/director Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) includes what might be regarded as a context: using the art of the late African-American artist, Jacob Lawrence, who painted what was titled the “Great Migration Cycle,” we are told that millions of black southerners in the early 1900s left the Jim Crow south for the north and what they hoped would be greater opportunity. What they discovered was a fundamental racism that was perhaps less overt but equally insidious. Because of racial redlining in Detroit housing and employment, the migrants ended up in crowded, crumbling neighborhoods where bitterness and hopelessness became endemic.
But there is also a greater context than that of the early 20th century. The attitudinal racism, born in human trafficking that lasted for well over a century and included the enslavement of millions of people on Southern plantations, has tenaciously endured. It is made manifest in the film “Detroit” and it remains, still, an injustice to be solved. Our Constitution demands it; however, we as a people, as a nation cannot seem to free ourselves of its hold to this day, and this is what makes “Detroit” still painfully timely.
Bigelow, instead of dealing with the Detroit riots in broad scope, confines her story to one location: the Algiers Motel where a group of young African-American men, seven in all, and two white women, take refuge from the mayhem taking place on the mean streets now filled with police and troops who are waging a kind of open urban warfare with the community itself.
What occurs is a horrible sequence of events, all confined to the claustrophobic interior of the Algiers’ Annex. Unexpectedly, a man, feeling reckless, safe in a room of friends on the second floor, fires a starter’s pistol out the window. The troopers and the police, led by a racist officer called Krauss (Will Poulter) and two other officers, lay siege to the motel, convinced there is a weapon being used from one of the windows.
And thus begins a prolonged nightmare that is all but impossible to watch as the young people are brought from their rooms to a downstairs hallway, made to stand with hands against a long wall where they are beaten and tortured and terrorized by the sadistic, out-of-control police, most especially Krauss.
The hallway interrogations, which the officers insist are only about finding a weapon, seem only a pretense so that they can bring to bear, under the color of authority, their brutal, racial animosity. A wide thread of bigotry runs through their dark attitudes as they beat and kill those who are innocent, while denying them any opportunity to not only question their treatment but to explain what happened.
From the first sound of that starter pistol to the last brazen murder, every moment is relentless and disconcerting in the extreme.
Disconcerting also because, as we know, the issues in our nation between our black community and the police have not been resolved but prove to be ever elusive. We are also aware that the clenched fist of racial animus, despite so many attempts, remains embedded not just in our history but is made explicit in our contemporary society. It’s no matter that we’ve had an African-American president and for a time believed that we might have, within our grasp, a moment when the arc of history would indeed bend toward justice and perhaps we had arrived at a post-racial America.
Therein is the power of “Detroit.” Half a century has passed, yet this film is contemporary and disturbingly familiar.
As an aside, this is a film that is reliant on a large ensemble of actors portraying a spectrum of roles, each deeply convincing. Unlike Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” or “Zero Dark Thirty,” which are character-driven, “Detroit” brings together countless fine performances and thereby creates a moving synergism.