From the September-October 2017 issue of News & Letters
Detroit—The movie Detroit is disappointing. The title is so vague as to be offensive and meaningless. Is this Detroit then, now, forever? No, it’s specifically about the massacre at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 rebellion. A Black youth partying there thought it would be funny to fire a starter pistol at the cops outside. The result: in trying to unearth a sniper’s gun, Detroit police terrorized Black kids, executed three 17-year-old boys, and were cleared of all charges in 1969 by an all-white jury.
DOCUDRAMA TURNS INTO EXPLOITATION
Detroit begins as an historical docudrama, presenting in detail the police raid on the illegal nightclub on 12th Street on July 23. The next section hammers away at crowds of Black people engaging in destruction, shouting down leaders like Congressman John Conyers. Shattering glass, the roar of fire, sirens, looting are filmed for what seems like hours. A police officer shoots and kills an unarmed Black youth in the back. He is charged with murder by his lieutenant but remains on active duty.
The overall impression is that gratuitous violence—white, Black, citizen, police officer—is treated equally and voyeuristically by the movie. Footage portrays looters as ignorant Black buffoons. There is only the briefest glimpse of a white looter, which gives mere lip service to the underplayed fact that whites and Blacks looted together.
John Boyega plays security guard Melvin Dismukes beautifully, but the film does not allow Boyega to portray the conflict Dismukes must have felt as a Black law enforcement professional witnessing the horrific brutality of the white Detroit Police Department officers at the Algiers Motel.
FILM FAILS TO GIVE MEANING TO EVENTS
The promising career of Larry Cleveland Reed, the lead teenaged singer for the Dramatics, was completely derailed as he is caught up in the night of torture at the Algiers and witnesses his best friend Fred murdered. The Vietnam paratrooper Greene alienates the courtroom in a furious outburst, raging against questions that seem to put him on trial instead of the white officer who tormented him.
The questioning going on now in the city of Detroit and the fight to stop fascism worldwide demand a search for meaning in our history, no matter how unpleasant. What was real at that time that now seems unimportant? What was dismissed and denied that is still all too real today? Ultimately this movie is an action flick set in Detroit, using Detroit as entertainment. Should a movie be expected to be more than entertainment? Yes, if it is based on actual events. Otherwise it is a brilliantly filmed wasted opportunity to heal our social wounds.
—Susan Van Gelder