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“Riot or Rebellion?” That was the sign I saw outside the Detroit Historical Museum, referring to their exhibition about the events of 1967 when I visited the Motor City three weeks ago.

When Detroit literally exploded on July 23, 1967, was it a case of lawless looting and rioting by African Americans? Or was it a rebellion by African Americans against a corrupt, racist system?

When I went to see Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, I wondered whether Bigelow, a white director, would present the summer of ’67 as a riot or as a rebellion.

A prologue by historian Henry Louis Gates and images by Jacob Lawrence describes the “Great Migration” of blacks from the South to Detroit and the hardships they would eventually face in a town where the police force was 95 percent white.

Once that context is set, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal jump to the early morning of Sunday July 23, 1967, and the police raid on an illegal, after-hours club. As white police officers attempt to arrest and transport some 80 African Americans, a crowd grows in the streets and projectiles are thrown against the paddy wagons. Soon looting breaks out in the neighborhood and businesses are set on fire.

With seamless editing, the film uses historical images to show, for example, Governor George Romney (father of Mitt) calling in the help of the federal government, resulting in an American city patrolled by troops and tanks. 

Despite such broad documentary touches, Bigelow and Boal tighten the film’s plot to focus on a single event, the subsequent police raid on the Algiers Motel that led to the shooting of three black youths and the brutalization of seven black men and two white women.  

In harrowing detail, we see the raid from three perspectives. First, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), the lead singer of up-and-coming R&B band The Dramatics, and his manager Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) take refuge at the Algiers Motel. Next, Detroit police officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) leads the raid when it seems a sniper has fired from the motel on the National Guard. Finally, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard, leaves the store he is protecting to investigate the motel.

At the end of the film, a notice appears to indicate that the events of the Algiers Motel “incident” are still disputed. That notice aside, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal put the blame squarely on the police officers, who are depicted as acting out of exhaustion, racism, and plain stupidity. The scenes of brutality and outright torture are extremely difficult to watch. And while other officers are portrayed in a positive fashion, particularly Krauss’s superiors, their mishandling of the investigation into the incident is criticized, as is the subsequent trial.

My first reaction to the movie was confused exhaustion. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, the movie is long and intense. As with her Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, Bigelow is not afraid of drawing the viewer into scenes of extreme peril and violence. I left the movie drained and unsure of what she was trying to say.

After thinking about the movie for a few days, however, I feel that Bigelow is trying to show elements of both riot and rebellion, along with something in between. Dismukes, the security guard marvelously portrayed by Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), is an African-American man caught between blacks and whites, pleasing no one and compromising himself. The singer Larry Reed, sensitively rendered by Smith, wants to move ahead in his career, but experiences the end of those hopes and dreams. Hannah Murray (Game of Thrones) plays one of the white women caught in the raid, and she evokes the shocked sensibilities of a naive flower child who faces pure evil for the first time.

The overall effect is that of tragedy, of pointless violence, suffering, and death. Why should we go see a tragedy?

When asked why she wanted to make Detroit, director Bigelow explained, “This is a situation that was 50 years ago, yet it feels very much like it’s today . . . I feel like there’s not enough conversation about race. And so I think the film has the potential to provide an opportunity to engage in that dialogue.”

While Detroit is a hard film to watch—and one may wish it were shorter and offered at least a glimmer of hope, Bigelow points out that we need to begin the dialogue about race by facing the tragedies of the past. If we don’t, more tragedies are bound to happen, in Detroit or in the streets of Charlottesville. (Annapurna Pictures)

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