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'Detroit' Holds A Mirror To The Motor City

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The faces of most of the actors in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit are young. Early in the picture, a white cop shoots a young black man running away from him. In close-up, they both look like children. A few moments later, the black kid has been found dead under a car, and Krauss the cop (Will Poulter) is on the carpet in front of a detective who says Krauss will be charged with murder. Krauss looks like a schoolboy in front of the principal.

As the movie puts together its picture of the insurrection in Detroit in that horrible summer of 1967, a dreadful bolus of events gloms together, and Bigelow, with screenwriter Mark Boal, weaves together both an historical context for what happens and specific events that take place. It’s like the combination of climate and weather – the long run and the short run – elements that may be intricately connected, but it’s not always obvious.

Detroit opens with a short-animated history of the mistreatment of black people in America and then goes to live action at a party at an unlicensed after-hours club. The Detroit police – both uniformed and plain clothes – raid the party, which apparently set off the fighting between black citizens and the mostly-white police, along with looting, burning, killing, mass arrests and a thorough breakdown of civic life.

But the centerpiece of the movie is a re-enactment of events at the Algiers Motel in the heart of Detroit’s black ghetto. As the city is going up in flames, a bunch of young people are having fun. They play in the pool; they run around the motel area; they act like the irresponsible children that they are. Just before this, the police had broken up a Motown concert in an ornate downtown theater, and a young musician from a group called The Dramatics, Larry Reed (Algee Smith) finds his way to the Algiers and stands in as the audience conscience before the grim situation that unfolds. It’s where spontaneous behaviors run into those long-established patterns and contexts, and it’s where this film is brilliant.

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The children are being children; the boyish-looking, ill-prepared, unsupervised Detroit cops in a ghastly way are acting out their cop fantasies, and in the heat of things, both go out of control. As the film shows it, one young black kid has a bullet less starter’s pistol – used at track and swimming meets. He wants to teach his friends a lesson about how the cops treat black people in Detroit. He fires the pistol and then he fires it out the window. And in that moment and in that atmosphere of white police trying to subdue black people, the police, the state police and the National Guard on the instant decide that there’s a sniper in the Algiers Motel. That racist young punk of a cop from the start of the movie, gets to unleash his sadism.

And another ancient pattern enters the scene. In the long history of white people abusing young black men, sex and white women are fundamental elements. For hundreds of years, young black men were lynched for supposed sexual insults or attacks on white women. One motive unearthed for the horrible beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles had to do with what the white cops considered King’s sexual response to a white policewoman on the scene.

Two young white girls are also partiers with the black children in the Algiers. It’s 1967, they like stepping over the social line and they’re having fun, until suddenly, the long-term context catches up with them. Their presence multiplies the fury of these white policemen who look like teenagers themselves. Detroit fashions an astounding portrait of what might have happened in 1967 – the old hatreds and fears, the young people living in their moment, unaware that they’re also living out a history.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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