Kathryn Bigelow of The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) fame has yet again proved her mettle as a brilliant, thinking director with her new period crime-drama. The film is based on the Algiers Motel incident which occurred during the racially inspired Detroit street riots on 1967 – a dark chapter in American history.
While parts of Detroit are burning in the wake of the city riots, three policemen barge into an illegal drinking club called the Algiers Motel apparently looking for a person who is supposed to have fired shots out of a top-storey window.
As it turns out, it is just a pretext to unleash a brutally cruel, racially inspired attack on the middle-class African-American patrons of the modest waterhole. The alleged shots, it must be said, were fired from a starter gun – it was nothing more than a childish prank.
What follows can be best described as police brutality of savage proportions that leaves you sick in the guts. Led by a twisted cop, Krauss (Will Poulter), the officers mercilessly brutalize the largely black civilians present at the motel causing three African-American deaths – casualties of one of the most reprehensible and shameful phases in American history.
Focused on the Algiers Motel aspect of the riots on that fateful July day in 1967, Bigelow tells her story employing real news footage and stills brilliantly juxtaposed with scripted scenes.
The film starts with a brief animated history of the internal migration of African-Americans in the 20th century moving on straight to the chaotic scenes of 1967.
While cops and soldiers are brutally trying to restore some semblance of order across the partially ablaze city, best friends Larry (Algee Smith), a young singer, and Aubrey (Nathan Davis Jr) take shelter from the large scale mayhem in a cheap room at the Algiers.
Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard, is on sentry duty at a nearby grocery store when shots are heard from the Algiers, drawing the National Guard and a riot squad who converge on the location to investigate.
Dismukes meets Krauss, an officer of the law with no compunctions about shooting unarmed looters in the back. Krauss together with two other officers, Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole), raid the motel dragging guests out of their rooms in a chilling display of ingrained racial hatred.
The rampaging officers find two white girls – played by Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever – in a room together with a Vietnam veteran, Greene (Anthony Mackie) and accuse them of running a prostitution racket.
Ostensibly, appalled at the idea of white women in an almost all-black hotel, the officers’ controlled aggression soon turns into horrendous violence – of the kind that would make you want to scream. But, at the same time, you are not able to take your eyes away from the agonizing scenes unfolding before you. Trust me this is no criticism; in fact, far from it. It further establishes the already proven attributes of a cinematically creative director called Kathryn Bigelow.
The unbridled violence and brutality beyond words grip you with a sense of dread and despair perhaps similar to what African-Americans of the time may have felt – that’s how realistically the story has been told.
However, more than the violence, the quieter scenes, if you can call them that, give you a better insight into the kind of loathing and contempt that prevailed among the black protagonists of the time. The hateful looks; the humiliating remarks and other subtle and not-so-subtle taunts and asides; all point toward the systemic, racially motivated injustices of the time.
Detroit is full of sustained moments that leave you terrified to the bones but that’s not the lasting feeling you are left with – what you take back is frustration at the helplessness of the black community and anger at the injustices of the democratic system of the world’s most powerful nation.
- Algee Smith as Larry Reed
- Anthony Mackie as Greene
- Austin Hébert as Warrant Officer Roberts
- Ben O’Toole as Flynn
- Chris Chalk as Officer Frank
- Ephraim Sykes as Jimmy
- Gbenga Akinnabve as Aubrey Pollard Sr.
- Hannah Murray as Julie Ann
- Jack Reynor as Demens
- Jacob Latimore as Fred
- Jason Mitchell as Carl
- Jeremy Strong as Attorney Lang
- John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes
- John Krasinski as Attorney Auerbach
- Joseph David-Jones as Morris
- Kaitlyn Dever as Karen
- Kris Davis as Blind Pig Patron
- Laz Alonso as Conyers
- Leon Thomas III as Darryl
- Malcolm David Kelley as Michael
- Miguel Pimentel as Malcolm
- Nathan Davis Jr. as Aubrey
- Peyton Alex Smith as Lee
- Samira Wiley as Vanessa
- Tyler James Williams as Leon
- Will Poulter as Philip Krauss
Producers: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Matthew Budman, Megan Ellison, and Colin Wilson
Writer: Mark Boal
Music: James Newton Howard
Director: Kathryn Bigelow