On the sweltering night of July 25, at a motel known for partying and vice, the 1967 Detroit riot reached its apex of cruelty.
Responding to reports of sniper fire, a group including Detroit police, state police, National Guardsmen and private security guards descended on the Algiers Motel. Before the night was over, three young black men had been murdered, and nine others, including two white women, had been brutally beaten.
The Algiers incident forms the unsettling core of Detroit, the new movie from Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow. Known for nerve-racking military stories like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow portrays the night's event as a sort of domestic war crime, a small-scale, inner city My Lai Massacre in which the guys with guns and power treat fellow humans as less than human.
More specifically, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal present the incident as a series of flashpoints dramatizing America's historical racial imbalance. One by one, the timeless triggers and reflections of racist thought emerge. Black men with white women. Black veterans in uniform. Black plaintiffs railroaded in court. Detroit plays out like a greatest hits of white aggression and indifference, part and parcel of U.S. history.
"The events at the Algiers Motel feel like a microcosm of a much bigger problem that has extended throughout the history of this country," Bigelow says in an email. "For something like what happened at the Algiers to occur takes years and decades of the sort of systemic racism and economic disparity that infects our country today."
Moments before the siege, a young black man at the hotel (Jason Mitchell) plays around with a starter pistol, mock-intimidating a friend with a faux-shakedown. "I was just demonstrating white power," he explains to a roomful of buddies. Soon we get a prolonged taste of the real thing. It's personified by Krauss (Will Poulter), a baby-faced police officer based on the real-life Detroit cop David Senak.
We've already seen Krauss shoot a looter in the back earlier in the film. We've heard him mutter his thoughts about "these people." Now we see him in impromptu interrogation mode, swinging his rifle butt, smacking around the two girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever), planting evidence, and, yes, shooting in cold blood. Ostensibly looking for a gun, Krauss quickly turns the search into an exercise in sadism.
Krauss and his partner (Ben O'Toole) are particularly enraged with Greene (Anthony Mackie), a recently returned Vietnam veteran. They prefer to think of him as a lowlife, pimping out white girls. It's hard not to think of the thousands of black veterans lynched after conflicts from the Civil War to World War II, guilty only of wearing their uniforms with pride once they got home. Or the age-old fear of miscegenation, also the impetus for too many lynchings to count.
Shortly after the incident, journalist and novelist John Hersey (Hiroshima) paid a visit to Detroit to investigate what happened that night at the Algiers. His book, The Algiers Motel Incident, was published in 1968. It's a thoroughly reported account that includes some devastating insights.
"The boys were not executed as snipers at all," Hersey writes. "They were executed for being thought to be pimps, for being considered punks, for making out with white girls ... for running riot — for being, after all and all, black young men and part of the black rage of the time." He added that the incident contained "all the mythic themes of racial strife in the United States."
Black rage, of course, remains today, much of it provoked by police shootings of unarmed black men. When Boal first brought the script to Bigelow, Ferguson, Mo., was burning after the shooting of Michael Brown. Suddenly we were back in that long, hot summer of '67. The ghosts of Detroit, Newark, Cincinnati and dozens of other cities were back, if they ever went away in the first place.
"To unpack what happened at the Algiers in parallel with the unfolding of events in Ferguson was a mirroring that drove home the timeliness of the story," Bigelow says.
That timeliness is brought home with force as you watch Detroit. Three men were killed in that hotel, a night of terror that was hardly an isolated incident. Three police officers were indicted for murder. The Algiers Hotel incident was part of a five-day explosion that claimed 43 lives, the majority of them black men. It was also part of a continuum that began centuries earlier and continues to this day.