Detroit’s decline as a city cannot solely blamed on the outcome of the 1967 Detroit Riots but a great of the damage done then ha never been repaired 50 years later. The city reached peak population in 1950 and has dropped ever since. However, following the riots, the white population hit the exit in a panic. It was that frantic.
Racial problems have marked Detroit since World War 2. In 1943, the race riot left 34 people dead and massive destruction in the poorest neighbourhood. Whites and blacks attacked each other even as the city geared up war production in the city. Southern blacks, Appalachian whites, Europe migrants were brought together by industry but distrust, unfairness and outright racial hatred resulted in the riot and it never went away.
The end of the war and continued industrialization should have helped one of the largest cities in the U.S. but it did not. The Big Three auto makers ramped up production but it all went to the suburbs. Detroit as a city could not annex nor bring in these suburbs into the fold because of Michigan law. Black people were often now allowed to buy property in the suburbs or faced huge opposition.
By 1967, Detroit as city still simmering with racial tension. Only now, it was marked by how many young black men were being sent to Vietnam which was grinding on and ending with funerals on a fairly steady basis. Discrimination by a mainly white and rather brutal police force was the spark to what would become one of the longest and deadliest riots in U.S. history.
It is the 1967 Detroit Riot that forms the basis of a movie simply called Detroit. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), the events surrounding the Algiers Hotel incident are examined. Shot in cinema vérité style, documentary footage is woven into a script by Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker). A police raid on an illegal black bar known as a “blind pig” and the brutality of their action leads to violence and Molotov cocktails on the street. Utter chaos ensues as the city burns and people die by the score in the mayhem. Will Poulter (We’re the Millers) plays Phillip Kraus, a racist cop amidst the first days of the riot who shooter a looter in the back.
By the time the National Guard arrives, the city is a shambles and yet things grow even hotter as rioting continues. The Detroit Police continue their crackdown on African Americans. Away from the area of the riots, the city begins to go into hiding mode. It is where we find two friends Fred played Jacob Latimore (Maze Runner) and Larry played by newcomer actor Algee Smith from a singing group that seeks refuge after their concert at the Fox Theater was cancelled due to the curfew. They end up at the west side Algiers Hotel where they flirt with Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) and Julie (Hannah Murray), two white women from Ohio.
The group meets at hotel Annex and meet Vietnam veteran Greene played Anthony Mackie. Over the course of the evening talk turns to the riots and in an act of reckless teen tomfoolery a young man named Carl (Jason Mitchell) fires a starter pistol out the window which brings the full force of a unrestrained law enforcement down on everyone in the hotel annex.
The dramatization of what happened is harrowing. Torture, brutality, sexual assault all occur as those in the Annex of the Algiers Hotel are lined up in a hallway and threatened with death. The last main character in the story is Melvin Dismukes played by John Boyega (Star Wars: Force Awakens) who plays an armed security guard who gets caught up in the series of events when he arrives at the hotel with the law. Already a body lies dead in the corridor as proof on the Detroit’s Police to find the person who was shooting out the window. Detroit Police, Michigan State Police and National Guard are all present in the hotel at different times during the interrogation and several gunshots are fired by law enforcement. However, it is Kraus played by Will Poulter who leads the chain of events.
By the time the night is over, three men from the hotel lay dead and the rest of the movie follows the arrest, trial and eventual acquittal of the police suspects and the security guard. The performances by the actors makes the horror very real. Come Oscar time a real case can be made for Oscar nods for John Boyega, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie and Will Poulter.
One danger in the dramatization of a real event is to substitute the movie for some of the facts that actually happened. Case in point is Detroit officer Kraus is an amalgam of possibly two officers. He doesn’t exist. The movie admits they have dramatized the events as there are parts of it that only a few people will ever know what really happened. I questioned to myself why the people lined up never admitted to seeing the starter pistol that Carl had. They all seemed prepared to go the grave with that information. The real account was that those being held did tell police about the pistol. It didn’t matter. More people died even when that information was conveyed.
The end of the movie mentioned what happened to some of people after the Algiers event. What was missing was what happened to Detroit. Forty-three killed, 1,200 injured, 7,000 arrested and 2,000 buildings burned to the ground. Fifty years later Detroit is still wounded and with it, a lot of America.
This has been a editorial by John Dobbin.
To read more from John, visit his blog Observations, Reservations, Conversations