It’s July 1967. The Summer of Love, right? All across America, young people are smoking dope, holding Be-Ins, and growing hair at a rate previously unobserved in human history. The strains of Sgt. Pepper waft through the air, and the universal victory of peace and love is just a tie-dyed T-shirt away.
That, of course, is the white privilege version of history, as Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit vividly reminds us. 1969 was dubbed the “Days of Rage” after Chicago cops started cracking the skulls of white college students, but the burned-out neighborhoods of Watts and Newark testified to a different, more personal kind of rage—one based not on opposition to foreign wars, but to racial injustice at home. It’s almost as if there were two Americas. Imagine that.
Of course, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal—who previously worked together on both Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker—are too focused on the events in Detroit in July of 1967 to put them so blatantly in social-historical context. Which is good, since their movie’s already almost two and a half hours long.
Detroit begins with an inciting incident for a civil disturbance: the raiding of an unlicensed night club, which sparked a five-day outbreak of violence and looting known as the 12th Street Riot. On the third night, a group of Detroit’s characters converge on the Algiers Motel, including the members of a vocal group, the Dramatics, who take refuge after their nearby concert has been cancelled. There they meet a couple of young white women, who take them upstairs to a room party hosted by a kid named Carl (Jason Mitchell).
Bigelow, using a handheld camera, shoves our faces close to the brutality and terror of this one, long night.
After Carl fires his starter pistol in jest out the window, the Algiers Motel is besieged. Police officers, spouting racist invective at every turn, barge in and line everyone up, including Greene (Anthony Mackie), a recently returned Vietnam vet. At this point, Detroit morphs from a tale about a city in crisis to a parable of authoritarian cruelty and dehumanization. Bigelow, using a handheld camera, shoves our faces close to the brutality and terror of this one, long night. It’s an incredibly effective technique to allow us to experience the emotions, the confusion, and the claustrophobia of the victims, three of whom end up dead. Detroit’s immediacy comes at the cost, though, of a sense of space—both within the cramped hallways and rooms of the Algiers as well as on the streets outside.
One character from those streets is Dismukes (John Boyega), an African American security guard standing watch at a nearby grocery store. His uniform gives him an in with the other law enforcement types—and, uniquely in this film, he tries to act as a sort of bridge. Dismukes’ character, unfortunately, could have used more development, as could that of lead cop Krauss (Will Poulter), whose racist, two-dimensional hysteria is nonetheless utterly believable.
In an overlong, concluding courtroom sequence, justice is done and the bad policemen are punished. Then, a postscript informs us, the election of Barack Obama, 41 years later, wiped the last vestiges of racism from the American experience, thus making Detroit a fascinating reminder of a long-closed chapter of our nation’s history.
No... wait. That’s not right. The cops were all found “not guilty,” and justice was never done. Which means if you can watch Detroit without thinking of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, or any of the other victims of racist violence masquerading as law enforcement, then, as the bumper sticker says, you’re not paying attention.