Detroit’s powerful statement about the legacy of police brutality in the U.S.
Detroit, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, takes place in the midst of the infamous 12th Street riot, which was sparked after the police raided an unlicensed club for African-American veterans in 1967. The bulk of this simmering, claustrophobic feature centers on Detroit’s Algiers Motel—specifically in the motel annex where the protagonists of the film have found shelter during the riot. It is here that nine young people are held at gunpoint by and subjected to the brutality of police officers, and where three are eventually murdered by them—a culmination of acts that makes a powerful statement about the legacy and reality of police brutality against people of color.
The film begins with that infamous descent into violence and rebellion: Looters are gunned down in alleys, and policemen overtly disobey protocol in order to carry out “justice” as they see fit. In a brief respite from the rioting, the movie focuses on an African-American singing group called The Dramatics, who are forced to abandon a club performance after rioting causes their venue to shut down. The musicians are unable to travel home due to the city’s unsafe conditions, so two of the members head to the Algiers Motel and decide to stay in its annex. There they meet two young white women who in turn introduce the musicians to the rest of the black men living at the motel. These characters find themselves discussing police brutality when one of the people staying in the annex, Carl Cooper, pulls out a small toy gun and begins mimicking how police officers talk to black people. Fed up with the way policemen have been abusing their power during the riots by murdering, beating, and jailing innocent civilians, Cooper fires blanks out of the toy gun in the direction of authorities, who are just blocks away. The police and National Guard, who are already on edge after having addressed reports of sniper fire, hear the sound of the blanks, deduce that a sniper is at the Algiers, and make their way there.
The viewers and characters in the film alike experience an unrelenting sense of unease, dread, and helplessness as police and National Guardsmen then descend upon the annex, their guns prematurely cocked and ready. When the police and guardsmen see movement in an annex window, they open fire, which causes Cooper to try to flee. He is ultimately shot in the back and bleeds out after one officer plants a knife on him. The police then enter the annex, rip people from their rooms, and force them up against a wall in the main room, threatening to kill them if they don’t identify where the gun is. Officers fire their weapons, slap the witnesses, thrust the butts of their shotguns into some of their guts and skulls—all in an effort to get information that they don’t have. The police then try to make each person confess or rat on the others, which they refer to as a “game,” while sexually harassing the women in the other room. One of the officers, not privy to the phony nature of the “game,” murders one of them, which prompts the officers to let the others go under the condition that they don’t say anything about what transpired that night. All but one of the witnesses agrees; the one who disagrees is murdered. The incident eventually goes to court, where an all-white jury acquits the police officers after their confessions are ruled inadmissible.
Movies like Detroit walk a challenging tightrope: they have to balance creating an authentic representation of historical facts—including respect for those who lived through the 12th Street riot and other racist incidents like it—with not making their depiction a spectacle while still engaging viewer. Detroit succeeds at this by creating a visceral world that taps into the audience’s building rage about the events they’re witnessing and lets them harness their aggression while synchronously letting terror build. Bigelow’s commitment to legitimacy shows that the inherent evil of real police brutality doesn’t need sensationalizing.
But beyond the cinematic quality of the film, the message it sends in this political moment is crucial. The abuses depicted by this film—its sharp depiction of irrational hatred and abuse of power at the hands of law enforcement—are still unfortunately relevant in 2017. We often think of police brutality as intermittent incidents, instead of evidence of a grander system of injustice. For example, we point to one cop who has committed violence against a civilian as a “bad apple.” But the movie depicts police brutality as not just committed by a corrupt cog in an otherwise perfect system, but as an unchecked staple of power that has survived for decades. For example, while there are singular white cops that emerge as the ultimate villains in the film, they only earned that title because of screen time, not because they were worse than any other member of law enforcement. It points to the unmitigated authority of the group of white cops and their blind mistrust of their captives as the collective villain.
The film also depicts the experience of being subjected to such brutality. The riot scenes are authentic and jarring; rioters aren’t there without purpose. The reactions vary, from shades of anxiety that paralyze some characters, to those who are more frustrated but understand that any kind of respite from the situation is unlikely. You can see the fear, strategizing, and compromise with morality that weigh on every riot participant’s face. This attention to detail illustrates the terror associated with the police among this community—the assumption of incumbent brutality that looms over black bodies across generations.
Of course, there have been many criticisms of this film, which are in part due to the film’s limited scope. The focus on the Algiers Motel virtually eliminates any black female characters beyond wives, mothers, or girlfriends, and largely ignores black women’s experiences during the riots. It’s also been hard to watch for many people, especially black audience members who have felt like they needed to look away, or even walk out of some theaters in response to such depictions of violence and brutality. That’s fair: After all, these experiences are all too real for some—especially those who were alive during the Detroit riots themselves. After all, 1967 is not some bygone era, and returning to this kind of survival is triggering. While accurate, the depiction of violence against black bodies, therefore, exists in such perpetuity for so many that to be reminded of it is a painful experience.
Overall, though, the film makes the important point that police criminality should be treated the same as any other form of criminality. It examines the way in which the rules of American society, whether written or unspoken, are stacked against black people. Whether they abide by instruction, succumb to eruption, or just remain silent, black people can infrequently find positive outcomes in times of tumult—neither in a court of law, nor in an act of daily life, like staying at a motel.
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