‘Detroit’ rattles the cages with point-blank storytelling

Film examines the bacdrop of race and police brutality in the wake of the Detroit Riot of 1967

Anthony Mackie as Greene in the film "Detroit." Photo courtsy of Annapurna Pictures

Los Angeles, CA-“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” When you consider the layered, historical  violence against black people in this country by law enforcement, this quote from philosopher and novelist George Santayana, rings true today as it did back when the Civil Rights Movement was going full throttle to combat racial injustices.

Today, the Blake Lives Matter movement have tried to take up that mantle. Black people, particularly  black men killed or brutalized at the hands of police, has become disgustingly almost as routine as walking into a grocery store. This realization is playing out today as it did when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders battled police dogs, waterhoses and night sticks going up side their heads.

In his detailed and monumental “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King stated, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come.” Black people living in the city of Detroit was at that point when the civil disturbance that left nearly 1,200 people injured, broke out.   

A scene from the film “Detroit.” Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

Fire, looting and destruction became the course of action over five days. So did death. Forty-three people died as a direct and indirect link to the Detroit Riot of 1967. Three of those individuals slain lost their lives at the Algiers Motel. This is where the film Detroit pick up the underscored atrocity of that rebellion. 

Detroit is unlike any movie experience you’ve ever had. Detroit tears at you emotionally and physiologically in the rawest of ways. Once the film ends after its 2 hour, 23 minutes run time, you find yourself all over the place. You’re angry. You’re sad. Empathy sits in one corner. Animosity peels out in another. 

Detroit feels like a boxer going the distance in a match with no let up in between rounds. There is no break. There is no let up. Just one tense scene after another. That’s the way director Kathryn Bigelow wanted this film to play out. The result of this hard-nosed look at the background subplot of the 1967 Detroit riot, is an unfiltered examination of innocent lives being savagely ripped apart by the chaotic stroke of the civil unrest.

Front and center in all of this mayhem are unconscionable acts of terror allegedly perpetrated by members of the Detroit Police Department. Based on true events, Detroit shakes the fundamental core of your belief system and values about the police being in tune with the communities they serve, particularly in minority neighborhoods.

If you already have reservations about the conduct of law enforcement officers, this film will make you think twice about Officer Bill. But the biggest takeaway from Detroit that seems to weave its way throughout the film is how the choices we make as individuals can either have consequences  or benefits. 

Actor Algee Smith as Larry in the film “Detroit.” Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

For the seven young black men and two white women, who chose to hang out at the Algiers Motel to avoid what was going on in the city, the choice to do the right thing and get off the streets, became their worst nightmare. For 17-year-old Carl Cooper, 18-year-old Fred Temple and 19-year-old Aubrey Pollard, it cost them their lives.

As Detroit illustrates, it didn’t have to be. Carl, played by Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E, Straight Outta Compton) is the cool dude in the room. He’s that guy every other guy hates because he’s the one that’s got the juice to handle his business and have enough suave power to charm the ladies.

Carl is a street hustler with a dash of sweetness working in his favor. Fred (Jacob Lattimore) is totally opposite of Carl. Fred is about as square as they come. His only flirtation with the streets is going out and trying to find singing gigs for his pals in The Dramatics. Aubrey (Nathaniel Davis Jr.) is simply a victim of being at the wrong place at the wrong time when all forces of nature breaks loose as police and National Guardsmen believe they are under attack from a rooftop sniper.      

Actor John Boyega as Dismukes in “Detroit.” Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

Every aspect of Detroit leaves you breathless. But it is the “Death Game” scene in the film that trigger any type of trapped in emotion you may have-one way or another-towards the police and its historic treatment of black men. What you witness is disturbingly chilling.

Lined up and spread eagle-style against a wall, the men and the women see their civil liberties castrated with every humiliating taunt and pistol-whipping they soak up and take. This is type of brutal confrontation is oftentimes the tune sung by African Americans when they accuse officers of wrongdoing.

This makes Detroit an important dialogue opener when it comes to race relations, police accountability and community policing. Detroit reminds us of our past and tells us what could happen in the future should we not pay attention to what’s going on now.

The high-profiled officer-involved deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers like in the cases of Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Samuel Dubuse and Philando Castille, among others, has stoked racial fears and outrage from both sides of the aisle. The deaths of the three young black men at the Algiers Motel in 1967, paint a dark, assumptive picture of how law enforcement members can go rogue, take someone’s life and walk off into the sunset with zero percentage of accountability.    

A scene from the film “Detroit.” Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

The terroristic interrogation that Carl, Fred, Aubrey and the other people there experienced at the Algiers Motel, is simply unthinkable. This is not the American way. Or is it? The most horrific scene in Detroit also happens to be its best. That’s because the acting of all the actors as a collective effort shine through like a falling star dropping out of the sky.

John Boyega (Dismukes), Will Poulter (Krauss), Algee Smith (Larry) and Hannah Murray (Julie) play out of their minds in their respective roles.  It is Smith, though, who steals the spotlight with his portrayal of Larry Reed, former lead man of The Dramatics. Smith’s singing theatrics which landed him the primetime role of playing Ralph Tresvant in The New Edition Story, takes a backseat to his acting chops in Detroit. 

As Larry, Smith takes the audience on a roller-coaster ride of emotions that swing real high as he and his singing buddies try to land a recording contract. But Smith is at his best when he turns the low moments in Larry’s life into a signature performance. The vicious assault at the Algiers Motel and the sequences afterwards leaves Larry broken and unsure about the future.               

Where do victims of crime go once they’ve been violated? What kind of recourse do they have if the perpetrators of that crime happen to be those who are sworn to protect and serve? Too often this scenario has played out in living color for the black community. This makes what happens in Detroit an American tragedy.  What we learn from the film is that bad people come in all shapes, forms and professions. We just don’t want those bad people to represent law and order.          

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1133 Articles
Dennis covers the NFL (Chargers), NBA (Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers), Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) and NCAA sports (USC, UCLA, Long Beach State). Dennis has also covered and written on topics such as civil rights, politics and social justice. Dennis is a proud alum of Howard University.

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