Kathryn Bigelow's newest film, "Detroit," is ostensibly a film about racial relations as viewed through the lens of the events of Detroit's 1967 riots, but you could be forgiven if you mistook it for a war film in the vein of either "The Hurt Locker" or "Zero Dark Thirty" (also Bigelow films).
The film opens with a raid on an illegal after-hours club, where the participants are celebrating the return of two African-American GIs from the Vietnam War. The scene is shot in signature shaky-cam style, giving what should be a regular police action a sense of being something much more dangerous. A looming sense of danger quickly comes over the raid, as a crowd of onlookers turns on the police for what they see as overreach and brutality from a largely-white police force. Bottles and rocks fly at the police as they are forced into a tactical retreat.
The events quickly spiral out of control as large portions of Detroit succumb to rioting so violent the National Guard are called in to quell the riots.
It's here the story begins to take shape as we are introduced to the three groups of people whose lives will intersect in one of the most horrifying and shameful moments in United States history: The torture and murder of black men and white women in the Algiers Motel by white, male police officers.
The first group introduced is a trio of police officers on patrol through a section of destroyed streets. Their initial conversations in the patrol car suggest sympathy for those caught up in the riots when one of the officers looks around at the smoldering ruins and says, "Left, right, and center, we have failed these people."
The illusion that these officers will prove to be heroes is quickly shattered when a young black man, carrying groceries from a looted store, is shot in the back by Officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) while fleeing. Although the event is noted at police headquarters when the young man eventually is brought to the hospital where he dies, the officer is allowed back onto the streets.
Despite the ongoing riots, other residents of Detroit attempt to go about their daily lives often unware of the extent of the rioting due to a partial media blackout. Among those residents are Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a member of a Motown group known as The Dramatics, and Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), an African-American security guard working overtime to protect a store from looting.
Boyega, of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" fame, is a revelation in this role as Dismukes. His performance is a highlight of the film: a man straddling his desire to fulfill his duty to protect private property and maintain order, while at the same time trying to defend his community from police brutality.
Dismukes' conflicting goals are brought to head when, after serving coffee to National Guard soldiers in an attempt to prove he is one of them, gunshots, supposedly from a sniper, ring out from the Algiers Motel.
In spite of its proximity to the riots, the motel stands out as an oasis of music, drugs, and (hopefully) sex for Larry Reed and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore). After flirting with two white women, who may or may not be prostitutes, and the women's friend's room in an building separate from the main motel, a starter pistol is fired. This sets off a chain of events which lead the police and National Guard to believe a sniper is firing at them from the motel.
In another of Bigelow's films, the steps that are taken to find the sniper and protect police officers could be viewed as justifiable or even heroic. In "Detroit," they are sickening.
The shots from the starter pistol lead to the National Guard, the police, and Boyega to the windows of the building where Reed, Temple, and their new acquaintances are hunkered down.
Once the shooting stops, the police enter the building and Krauss (again) shoots a young black man in the back, who promptly bleeds out and dies. Krauss has apparently learned his lesson and leaves a knife at the man's side, so he can claim self-defense.
What follows are scenes as disturbing (if not more, since they actually happened) than any horror film has shown in decades.
The officers, led by Krauss, line the occupants against the wall and take turns beating them, demanding to know the location of the gun that fired against the police officers.
When all deny knowledge of any gun, the police bring the "suspects" into a room one by one, and pretend to kill two in hopes the others will reveal the identity of the shooter.
Even the white women aren't spared from the horrific treatment, as they are stripped, beaten, and called traitors to their race for sleeping with black men.
When the fake killings lead to a real one, the police concoct stories of how they were attacked or their weapons were almost stolen, and threaten the remaining suspects to remain silent about what happened that night before letting them go. Fred Temple, however, is murdered in cold blood when he refuses to say that he sees nothing while looking at a corpse.
Of course, these horrific events don't stay secret. Dismukes and the three police officers are charged with various crimes, but all are eventually found not guilty by an all-white jury.
It's impossible to watch this film and not think back to the recent events of Ferguson, Mo., or Baltimore, where police often appeared more like occupying soldiers than keepers of the peace. Is Bigelow suggesting that the tactics and gear once reserved from foreign soil have come home?
Ultimately, "Detroit" asks more questions than it answers about the future of race and police relations, but they are questions worth asking.
It's far past time the horrors of the Detroit riots were given the spotlight they deserve. Maybe now we can learn from them.
Eric Peterson is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a native of Illinois and all-around nerd. His love of film probably comes from the fact that "Groundhog Day" was filmed in his hometown, which he heard about over and over and over again.
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