The summer of 1967 is pegged in American history as a memorable time, when thousands of young people known as hippies, congregated in San Francisco for a peaceful, joyous ‘summer of love.’ But for another major US city, Detroit, that same period half a century ago is one that prompts bleak, bitter memories.
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There were race riots, triggered by a police raid of an after-hours club, peopled by black citizens who were roughly hauled out on to the streets and arrested. Detroit’s long-neglected inner neighbourhoods erupted with fury; stores and businesses were looted and set ablaze. The riots lasted for days, and state police and National Guard were brought in to restore order. It was an ugly summer.
This is the subject of an impressive new film from director Kathryn Bigelow, working with her regular screenwriter Mark Boal. These two do not shy away from difficult subject matter: their previous work includes the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, which focussed on a bomb disposal team in Iraq, and Zero Dark Thirty, about the quest by US Navy Seals to eliminate Osama bin Laden.
Detroit may be more localised in scale, but is no less intense. It begins with a faithful re-creation of the raid on the drinking club, portrayed as an absurd over-reaction by the city’s police – an exercise almost deliberately fashioned to provoke the city’s black residents to anger.
But the film’s centrepiece takes place two nights later, at a motel called The Algiers, where police were called after reports that a sniper was allegedly firing shots through an upstairs window. In Bigelow’s film the police (all of them white) entered the hotel, rounded up half-a-dozen black guests and dragged them into a hallway, faces to the wall, in increasingly violent attempts to persuade each of them to confess they were the sniper. By the end of the evening, three black men at the Algiers had died of gunshot wounds.
This is a sombre, yet hugely compelling story, enhanced by Bigelow’s remarkably realistic shooting style; there are passages in Detroit when it isn’t clear if we are watching actors in a film or historic documentary footage.
Two of the acting performances are stand-outs, more astonishingly so because British actors deliver them. John Boyega, the 25-year-old Londoner who became world famous overnight for his role as Finn in the last Star Wars movie, plays Melvin Dismukes, a young black security guard with a strong sense of fairness, who wants to cool the violence on both sides of the dispute. He wanders into the Algiers hoping to mediate between police and the shooting suspects, but finds himself drawn into a nightmarish standoff. Boyega is utterly memorable here; the moral core and the witness of Detroit, he can suggest universes of meaning with a single concerned glance.
Will Poulter, who first emerged on screen in his early teens in the delightful Son of Rambow, plays a cop named Krauss (a fictional composite) who organises the round-up of ‘suspects’ at the Algiers and displays an almost psychopathic determination to identify the sniper, irrespective of loss of life. He’s extraordinary.
A word too for Algee Smith, a notable young actor who plays Larry Reed, the talented lead singer of a young pop group called the Dramatics. The boys are just about to get their big break, going on stage at a Motown revue Detroit’s Fox theatre, following Martha and the Vandellas, when news of violent unrest in the city causes the event to be halted, with the audience asked to leave. Larry and a friend go to the Algiers to stay off the streets and out of trouble; inevitably he gets caught up in the horror in an evening that utterly changes the rest of his life.
Detroit isn’t exactly easy viewing; you get to feel the tension, dread and fear in that hallway. But it’s a vivid reconstruction of an historical event – and a direct, unapologetic approach to portraying an extreme example of racial unease common to many US cities back then – and sadly, even today, 50 years on.