There’s the famous saying that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, “Detroit” shows us in vivid, cinematic brilliance how true this axiom really is.
It’s been 50 years since the 12th Street Riot, otherwise known as the Detroit Rebellion, which took place between July 23 and July 27, 1967. 43 people died during those days and over a thousand were injured. The only other public uprisings in American history that involved more people were the New York draft riots in 1863 during the Civil War and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
“Detroit” covers the entire episode but focuses in on what’s referred to as the “Algiers Motel Incident.” On the night of July 25th, a guest at the Algiers motel fired off a few blank rounds from a starter pistol. Police and National Guard thought there was a sniper in the area. They stormed the motel’s annex and grabbed its occupants, ten African-American men and two white women, lining them up against the wall in the first-floor hallway. Police officers then began abusing, and assaulting the “suspects” (killing three of them), demanding to know who and where the sniper was.
Bigelow shows her mastery of the film art as she weaves the story together using archival footage, close-ups of fear-filled faces pushed against the wall, and the jarring sounds of shouting, screaming, and gunshots. The tension built up in the scenes makes you feel like you were there.
John Boyega (The Circle, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) plays Melvin Dismukes, an African-American security guard employed by a store across the street from the Algiers. Dismukes tries to use his status as law enforcement to talk some sense into the white police officers. For his troubles, Dismukes ends up being accused of one of the murders committed by the police. Anthony Mackie (Captain America: Civil War, The Hurt Locker) brings star power to his small part as Greene, a level-headed Vietnam War veteran whose status as a vet doesn’t save him from abuse. Will Poulter (The Revenant, The Maze Runner) portraying Krauss, the Detroit police officer leading the little group of officers abusing their power, gives us a film villain that accentuates the horror of the incident.
It's not clear exactly how events at the Algiers went down. The film's postscript acknowledges that there were conflicting accounts in court records about who did what and when during that night. Mark Boal, the film's writer, after speaking with people who were actually there still manages to craft a story which engages the viewer's empathy and exposes the racism that lead to the event portrayed in the film.
I didn’t know anything about this historical event before seeing the film and I’m guessing that I’m probably not the only one. “Detroit” does more than just fill one of the many gaps in the modern American’s sense of history. This film tells a story that needs to be told, needs to be known, needs to be learned from. As I watched, my soul was filled with sadness that an “incident” like this one ever happened. I was saddened that people can carry so much hate in their hearts that they resort to violence and murder. What made me the saddest is knowing that racists attitudes still beget violence to this day. What to do? Embody love in your life. See your neighbor, no matter his or her race, age, religion, or lifestyle, as one like yourself: created by God to love and be loved. The first Letter of John says, “perfect love drives out fear” (4:18). I happen to think that perfect love also drives out hate.