At some point while watching Director Kathryn Bigelow’s newest film Detroit I lost the feeling in my hands and a headache began to pulsate at the base of my skull; I had been clenching my entire body so tightly that I was cutting off circulation, but my physical body wasn’t the only discomfort felt during this film. The passive use of the “n-word” isn’t what started my discomfort, it was the repeated use of phrases like “those people” or “them” that began the unraveling of my emotions; as a biracial woman I was immediately transported to the time of my parents youth, when my father would have been called “one of them”.
Detroit beautifully opens with an animated prologue, using Jacob Lawrence paintings to depict the shift of African-American populations from the cotton fields of the south to the suburbs of the north. The movie is set in its title city, during the summer of 1967, when race riots nearly burned the city to the ground after the police raid of an after-hours unlicensed club. The story comes to a head at The Algiers Motel, when the paths of a black singer, his black band manager, a black soldier recently returned from war (Anthony Mackie), a few black men cooking, a black security guard (John Boyega), and a couple of white women visiting from Ohio, all come together when police think they hear sniper shots being fired from window at the motel. This disgusting moment in US History, known simply as “The Algiers Motel Incident”, is aptly timed in its release near the 50th anniversary of that night. Even though it can easily be Googled, I want to allow audiences to the full breadth of their emotions when experiencing it, so I will close my synopsis with a concise overview: a total of 12 people were brutalized and beaten like animals, 3 of them end up dead, and the impunity that follows is still being seen and felt in the American “justice” system.
This review is shorter than most because, to be honest, I’m still processing the anger, fear, and profound sadness I felt while watching this movie. When I left the theater, I overheard multiple black attendees say things like, “Nothing has really changed…this is still happening…why is this is still happening?” The grief in their voices and the pain behind their eyes was palpable, especially on the faces of the older people of color who lived through this time. In the large scheme of things, 50 years have passed and not much has really changed in America for people of color, it has just gotten, at least until the most recent political shift in this country, more duplicitous and covert; a generation that helped author the racist narrative of this country hasn’t died off while the generation who helped ushered in the Civil Rights movement can only hope to pass the narrative to the next. However, amid the anguish that this film portrays, Bigelow brings a semblance of humanity to a dark moment in US History with her timeliest film yet. This is not an easy film to watch but it is incredibly important that you do.