“Detroit” is intense.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have fashioned a movie about the 1967 Detroit riots that tries to give us a sense of what it was like to live through those harrowing days.
It succeeds all too well. “Detroit” is a tense and suspenseful movie that is exceedingly stressful to watch.
That’s to be expected, I suppose, in a film about the inner city riots that lasted five days, resulted in 7000 arrests, and cost the lives of 43 people.
“It’s a war zone out there. They’re destroying the city.”
The initial spark for the riots was a police raid on an unlicensed after-hours club for black people, but it’s made clear that tensions were already running high between the mostly black population and the mostly white police force.
The first 30 minutes of this 2-hour-20-minute movie gives us a quick-edit panorama of the city-at-large. We get glimpses inside patrolling police vehicles and National Guard trucks and see glimpses of speeches in the street, as well as behind-closed-door conversations in police headquarters. We also pop in on various black residents, including an a capella group called the Dramatics, all just living their lives.
When the Dramatics’ singing debut is canceled at the last minute due to the riots, the singers have to find their way home in the midst of those riots and a couple of them find refuge in a nearby motel. It proves to be a fateful decision. Not long after, police converge on the Algiers Motel in search of a sniper who they’re convinced fired at them. Thus begins a night of sheer hell for those inside the motel.
“You don’t talk about this to anyone, ever. Understand?”
A handful of Detroit police officers proceeds to terrorize seven black men and two white women for hours on end, basically holding them hostage. Not all of the victims survive ’til morning.
As one outrage follows another follows another, the experience becomes more and more and more infuriating. This is Black Lives Matter, circa 1967.
Bigelow and Boal based their movie on actual court records — yes, the case went to court and is rather hurriedly dealt with in the film — as well as on information gathered through FOIA requests, and, perhaps most crucially, on the living accounts of three of the participants.
In a postscript, the film acknowledges that a few narrative holes remain in the official account and that the screenwriter filled those as best he could to make a plausible story. And yes, the film could be accused of being biased, because it focuses on three egregiously racist cops.
But in the film’s defense, there is no doubt hundreds of individual stories that could be told about those five hectic days and this just happens to be a particularly dramatic one.
The story “Detroit” tells is not only compelling but one which still resonates 50 years after the fact.