In the summer of 1967, the raid of an after-hours bar in a black neighborhood in Detroit precipitated one of the most deadly and destructive riots in the history of the U.S.
By the time it was over, 43 people were dead and nearly 1200 were injured, with thousands of buildings destroyed. This is the focus of the new movie Detroit, made by Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.
Detroit wastes no time plunging us into the situation, with a handheld camera that almost mimics a documentary style, shooting in close quarters with high intensity as we see things quickly escalate from a neighborhood skirmish to a full-on and fiery riot, with residents sick and tired of being harassed by the mostly white Detroit police department. Before long, the state police and the National Guard are called in, ramping up the tension even more.
At least half of the movie, though, takes place at the Algiers Motel, which police raid after thinking they’d seen gunshots coming from a window at the motel. What follows is a long and excruciating sequence in which white officers harass and beat 10 or so black patrons of the motel along with two white women who were found in a room with one man, an honorably discharged Vietnam veteran. Ultimately, three of the men at the motel were murdered by the police before the horrible night was through.
There’s no doubt that Detroit is an extreme and visceral experience, from the early minutes when the riots begin, through the night at the Algiers, and into the legal fallout after the murders. But the movie has been criticized for a number of reasons, among them that it ignores the role of black women in the riots and its aftermath, and that it’s a representation of a uniquely black experience made by a team of almost entirely white people. And these seem like legitimate complaints—black women have barely a handful of lines in the film, and it’s reasonable to ask what a group of white filmmakers might miss about the lived black experience in America.
Still, it can’t be denied that Detroit is a true experience itself, a difficult and raging depiction of the blinding heat of those days, 50 years ago.