Los Angeles knows about riots and that might make what happened in 1967 at the Algiers Motel more understandable. This is a cautionary tale about games with guns and an imbalance of power.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the period crime drama premiered in July of this year (2017) but did not gross well despite critical acclaim. That’s small wonder in a year where bad news seems to assault us every week. July 23 marked the 50th anniversary of the event that sparked the riots. On Sunday, 23 July 1967 at 3:45 a.m., the Detroit police raided an unlicensed club on what was then 12th Street (now Rosa Parks Blvd.) where 82 patrons were celebrating two vets returning from Vietnam. A mob formed and people began throwing rocks at the officers, starting fires and looting local stores. The 12th Street Riot has begun.
Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan Army National Guard into Detroit and then-President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. In the end, 43 people were dead, over 2,000 buildings were destroyed and 7,200 arrests had been made. Of the dead, one was a National Guard, one was a Detroit Police officer, and two were members of the Detroit Fire Department.
By the end of the first day, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh had enacted a citywide curfew from 9 p.m. until 5:30 a.m. The audience at the Fox Theater Motown review was quietly told to leave that evening.
The riot was one of over 100 race riots in the US during the summer of 1967. The Detroit riot lasted give days and was more destructive than the 1943 race riot.
In the movie “Detroit,” by the second day, against orders, a Detroit police officer, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), shoots a looting suspect in the back. This is contrary to orders but his angry superior officer allows him to remain on duty. (There were looters shot and killed during the riot).
In another area off the city, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), has already pulled a double shift at his day job, but it called in to his other job as a private security guard for a grocery store. He and another guard secure the store; Dismukes goes out to offer the Guardsmen coffee.
Elsewhere, the rhythm and blues group, The Dramatics, are dressed and ready to take the stage after a girl group performance, but the venue is shut down. It’s after curfew and the singers attempt to leave, but split up with lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) deciding to stay the night at the Algiers motel. Two white women from Ohio–Julie Ann Hysell (Hannah Murray) and Karen Malloy (Kaitlyn Dever), are already there and through them, Larry and Fred meet Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) and Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.).
What begins as a rebellious but alarming joke ends with a deadly game. Carl uses a starter gun to frighten first his friends and then police and Guardsmen. The local police led by Krauss react by playing a deadly game to coerce confessions. The Guardsmen and soldiers are disturbed by what they see as civil rights violations (In real life state trooper John Fonger reported to his supervisor who stated he didn’t like was going on) and leave the immediate vicinity, with one returning briefly to safe the two women.
While the main focus is on the actual incident, the later third of the movie follows the trials and acquittals.
If you can’t feel outrage for the women or sadness for the young men who were traumatized and the three men who died, you don’t have a functioning heart. Carl Cooper was only 17. Fred Temple was 18. Aubrey Pollard was 19. This is police brutality combined with a lethal dose of racism. This is Detroit in the 1960s and not the South during Jim Crow.
In real life, there was no Krauss or Demens or Flynn. There were three officer who were found not guilty and for that reason their names were changed. The actual officers who were charged and acquitted of two murders were Ronald August (Demens), 28, and Robert Paille (Flynn), 31, who had both confessed, but their confessions were ruled inadmissible. The person who allegedly had been questioning and beating the young men was the 23-year-old David Senak (renamed Krauss). Part of the problem wasn’t just that the juries were all white, but also that in the case of August, Judge William Beer never instructed the jury that it had the option to convict August of second-degree murder or manslaughter.
The movie was actually filmed in Massachusetts and Detroit. The Algiers Motel was renamed The Desert Inn, but was torn down as part of an urban renewal project in 1979. The Dramatics, formed in 1964 by Reed and Ron Banks, became The Dynamics who in 1971 had the hit “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get,” but Reed left the group after the Algiers incident and live in relative anonymity.
The brutality is disturbing, but the movie itself has an uplifting Easter egg: The real Larry Reed gets a place on the soundtrack (“Grow” by Smith). One of the other survivors, Dismukes, served as a consultant and told Variety, “I had never felt open to telling my side of the story until I met Kathryn, but she really listened to me and promised to get the truth out, and I think she did an amazing job.” Bigelow gives us a sensitive testimony to a tragedy in “Detroit.” The truth is out; don’t shy away from it in these Black Lives Matter times.
“Detroit” won the African American Film Critics Association award for Best Ensemble, Best Song (“It Ain’t Fair”) and was fifth in the Top 10 Films. He has several nominations for the Black Reel Awards.