Bigelow explores a horrific history
There is no nice or pretty way to tell a story about the systemic oppression and mistreatment of black people in the United States. It’s fitting then that Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, an account of the murders of three unarmed black men that took place in the Algiers Motel in late July 1967, is an all-out assault on your senses and soul.
It’s hard to overstate just how visceral and harrowing an experience it is.
Detroit is a well-made and evocative film that is also numbingly brutal with little to no reprieve. And while it might be the only true way to tell this story, it’s also one that is not going to be for everyone.
To set the stage for the Algiers Motel, Bigelow begins by speeding through the history of black people in the US with animated acrylics and pounding music emancipation, the great migration, white flight and the racist zoning practices that led to the overcrowding of black residents in urban pockets. Tensions have already reached a tipping point, and then in the summer of 1967, Detroit police bust an after-hours club in what would become the inciting incident for the riots.
Three days after the riots begin, a local singing group called The Dramatics are about to go on stage at a big, crowded theater hoping to get their big break but are interrupted and sent home due to the events outside.
The charismatic lead singer Larry and his buddy Fred decide to peel off and get an $11 room at the Algiers and wait out the night. There they meet two white party girls, a veteran, Greene, and a provocateur, Carl, who plays around with a starter pistol that eventually catches the attention of the police in the area. The officers, who we’ve already learned are rotten, storm the motel on the hunt for the sniper they presume is there.
Bigelow collaborated again with screenwriter Mark Boal on Detroit, which is perfectly evocative of this specific time and place but lacking the perspective and illumination that one might hope a 50-year-old event would warrant.
Perhaps they wanted to leave conclusions and interpreting to the audience, and as the film notes at the end, no one knows for certain what happened in the Algiers Motel. Some of the scenes were pieced together and imagined by the filmmakers.
Also very little insight is given to the victims’ lives outside of this event. Maybe that’s not the point, though. Maybe anger is all you’re supposed to feel when you step outside the theater. Maybe not feeling satisfied with Detroit is the point.
This was America, you think. This is still America. And the movies can’t offer a resolution that history hasn’t.
Kathryn Bigelow poses for her film ZeroDarkThirty in New York. REUTERS