The word ‘’relevant’’ is used by Hollywood to refer to any film that captures the current climate in a meaningful way. And sadly, Detroit is very much relevant in America’s social and political landscape today and the truly saddening thing is that once the movie is over and the credits roll, you have to wonder, what, in 50 years, has changed?
July 23 1967. Police arrest patrons at an after hours club over a liquor licence. Dozens of black Detroit citizens are lined up and rounded up in police paddy wagons while a mob demands to know why they are being arrested, shortly after a riot on 12th street breaks out. The story doesn’t follow the riots themselves, but focuses on what happened at the Algiers motel. But before that we need to know the people involved.
Philip Krauss, (Will Poulter) Detroit police officer who we first see shooting an unarmed looter in the back but allowed to return to active duty. Algee Smith (Larry Reed) a singer with the soul group ‘’the Dramatics’’, who missed his shot at the big time because of the riots, along wit his friend Aubrey, they had to the Algiers to weather out the riots where they meet two white girls Karen and Julie Ann whom they befriend. Security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is protecting his corner store and decides to try and ease tension by offering National Guardsmen coffee, right when everything goes horribly wrong.
Carl Cooper, one of the Algiers residents, fires a starter pistol with blank rounds, which the National Guard and police mistake for sniper fire, as such they return fire and Carl is shot by Krauss who then plants a knife next to his body. All other residents are arrested – Algee, Aubrey, Fred, Karen, Julie and Vietnam veteran Greene (Anthony Mackie).
What follows is Krauss interrogating each suspect with threats and taunts demanding to know who fired the shots, when he doesn’t get immediate answers he pulls one of them into the other room and pretends to kill him to terrify the others into confession. This goes on for 30 uncomfortable minutes with everyone too scared to say anything as well as honestly not knowing. But Krauss is on a power trip, and one of his fellow officers shoots Aubrey for real, not realising Krauss’s interrogation. The worst part is to Krauss, it was just a game.
Days after the riots died down, Dismukes is arrested for the Algiers murders. Unable to find the starter pistol, Krauss let everyone go providing they never speak about what happened but his fellow officers confess and they all go to trial. But despite the testimony of everyone who Krauss brutalized, the all-white jury finds them not guilty. For everyone else, they go on with their lives knowing justice was never truly served.
No spoiler warning because it’s not a story, its history, of tragedy and how hatred utterly destroyed the lives off so many innocent people who had nothing to do with the riots. Like Django Unchained Kathryn Bigelow pulls no punches, and if you feel only uncomfortable after watching Detroit then I say you have it pretty easy.
If you want to learn more I suggest checking out Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th on Netflix or for a more honest and light-hearted take on American race relations, Justin Simien’s satirical Dear White People as well as Jordan Peeles critically acclaimed Get Out.
By Daniel Murphy