'Detroit' on Fire in Kathryn Bigelow's Historic Drama
Was the violence that erupted in Detroit in July, 1967 a rebellion or a riot? The words chosen can signify your perspective and interpretation. In director Kathryn Bigelow’s gripping enactment of those events, Detroit, the rebellion, sparked by a genuine pushback at oppression, lapsed into a riot of theft of unthinking destruction without entirely losing sight of the frustrations fueling the unrest. The events depicted by Bigelow and her longtime collaborator, Mark Boal, have been prosecuted and litigated several times with conflicting testimony and unsatisfying verdicts.
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Detroit is a generally plausible dramatization, focused on the infamous murders at the Algiers Hotel but beginning at the beginning—the police raid on a black-owned after-hours joint that ignited the upheaval. The raid looks like one of those shakedowns that were the norm at many big city police departments in those years, usually directed at bars frequented by vulnerable minority groups and culminating in patrons hauled away in paddy wagons. Only this time, the crowd pushes back, a mob gathers, chunks of cement are hurled and the police retreat. Soon enough, someone smashes a nearby shop window and steals the bicycle on display. A Molotov cocktail is thrown at a gas station, setting the district on fire.
On film as in reality, the violence spreads like a virus and is met with violence. Gov. George Romney, Mitt’s dad, dispatches state troopers and the National Guard. LBJ sends paratroops to a city whose depictions on network news resemble scenes from Vietnam. Detroit shows violence escalating, often through the unintended consequences of thoughtlessness and bigotry. Before long the narrative shifts to the Algiers Hotel, raided by Detroit police backed by troopers and guardsmen. They are drawn to the building by what sounds like gunshots. By the time they leave, three teenage African Americans are dead and the hotel’s other occupants are beaten bloody.
The racism is naked, especially among Detroit cops accustomed to their role as the occupying army of the city’s black ghetto. They are especially incensed by the presence of two young white women, whom they suspect of having sex with black men. Complicating the situation is the presence of an African American security guard, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who wants to do the right thing but becomes an uneasy spectator to events as they spiral out of control. The only acts of conscience come from National Guard soldiers who allow one black man to escape and eventually bring the white girls to safety.
Through much of Detroit, the soundtrack buzzes with the drone of newscasts, punctuated occasionally by a blast of Motown. Not unlike Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film about the U.S. occupation of Iraq, The Hurt Locker, Detroit is an immersion in a sweaty atmosphere of hostility and danger. With an ensemble cast and no major star roles, the dozen major characters are protagonists in a drama that intensifies scene by scene into fear, chaos and hatred.