I need you to survive the night

I need you to survive the night

 

The temptation is to say that ‘we know”. We know what happened, we know what someone went through, we know what the underlying problem is. Such attitudes lead to apathy and complacency. The truth is that we don’t know shit. The truth is that we have forgotten. The truth is that we should sit down in the dark and be reminded.

DETROIT takes us back to the summer of 1967, when a police raid in Detroit, Michigan set off civil unrest unlike anything the city had ever seen. Neither elected officials, the city police, the state troopers, nor the national guard were having much luck restoring order. Buildings burned, businesses were looted, and chaos reigned.

In the midst of all this, a soul group was trying to get their big break at a local theatre. Moments before they can take the stage, the performance is halted due to riots approaching the theatre. The audience is dispelled, and the performers likewise need to run. In the resulting disarray, the group’s lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and their manager Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) get separated from the others. They end up at The Algiers Motel, thinking it to be as safe a spot as any to keep safe for the night.

Nearby, a black security guard named Melvin (John Boyega) is protecting a grocery store. He takes it upon himself to approach the city police and national guard that have been dispatched to the block, lest they mistake him for someone up to no good.

Back at The Algiers, Larry and Fred have cozied-up to a pair of white girls named Karen and Julie Ann. The women bring them back to their room, where they are introduced to three other black men they’ve been keeping company with. It’s then that the gentlemen try to educate the girls on what happens when a person of colour comes face to face with the law, using a starter pistol as a prop.

The game is taken too far though, when one of the men takes the starter pistol and fires it out the window in the direction of Melvin, the cops, and the soldiers. The authorities mistake it for sniper fire, and after returning fire themselves, storm the motel.

In the raid, the perpetrator of the prank is shot in the back by Officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter). Not knowing that he has already killed the so-called “gunman”, Krauss hauls all of the residents of The Algiers together for questioning. They are forced against a wall, psychologically tortured, and repeatedly beaten…all in the name of “keeping the peace”.

By the time dawn breaks, two more people will be dead, all will be traumatized, and many questions will need to be answered.

 

Will Poulter in Detroit

 

The film that Kathryn Bigelow has brought us is likely one that many people will not want to spend time with. They will look at its subject matter and think that it’s “too much” or “too heavy”. What’s worse, they might look at the subject and say to themselves that they “know”. They “know” what happened, they “know” what the film wants to say, they “know” what they are supposed to feel in the face of an abuse of civil rights.

That’s just the point though; those who feel that they “know”, probably don’t really. And even if they do, that shouldn’t entitle them to a note to get out of class. There are complexities and nuances to a story like this that demand consideration, and if we can give every superhero that comes down the pike consideration, so should we a movie like this.

We should look at what the PTSD of being in The Algiers did to Larry Reed. We should feel disgusted by the smug smile on the face of Philip Krauss who knows the system will protect him. And we should listen to the prayers spoken aloud by several strangers as they press their hands into a motel wall, unsure if they will ever actually live to take their hands away.

Flawed as this film may be, we owe it to these people to listen to their story…fully, completely.

The sad truth that DETROIT wants us to remember is how very deep the wounds like those inflicted at The Algiers Motel cut into the American psyche. It was not just a moment of racial tension, and not just a moment of police brutality. It was an affront to the very civil liberties that America was supposed to be founded in. It was a middle finger to the due process that remains in place even – nay, especially – in times of chaos. And it was a personal tragedy that affected several lives beyond repair, and not just those lives that were ended that night.

These wounds are not healed by the justice system, since the system is rigged. These wounds are not healed by time, since time has a habit of making people forget. These wounds will leave permanent scars, and deep trauma, and need to be re-examined again and again otherwise they will be inflicted again.

This is a movie about one moment that affected so many, and one moment that somehow keeps repeating as time passes. The excuses change, the victims are replaced, the result is constant.

DETROIT is but one story of many. It is one facet of what happened in The Motor City in 1967. It is one facet of what continues to happen in America. It is one facet of the continued state of North American life. It’s a valid question to ask whether Kathryn Bigelow was the person to tell the story – just as it’s a valid question to ask if I am the person to review the story. These questions need to be part of an ongoing conversation, and in that conversation those in position of privilege need to do more listening than speaking.

That said, right this moment, these points are not what matters most.

What matters most is that the story was told at all; and that many more like it, continue to be told…lest we forget.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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