Oscar winning Kathryn Bigelow (the only woman ever to have won, for The Hurt Locker) directed this film, which was 36th on the Guardian’s top 50 of 2017. The African-American Film Critics Association placed it 5th in their top 10 films of the year.
The film inventively draws viewers into the tension by setting up the history of the black-white relations in Detroit in an animated sequence depicting the Great Migration between 1910 and 1930, when millions of African-Americans fled the racist Southern states to try to start better lives in the industrial cities of the North. This turned into decades of disappointment as the white power structure there also found ways to hold people down economically.
With that explained, the film dives into a 1967 police raid of an illegal after-hours bar, in the Algiers Motel, that is hosting a party for returning Vietnam veterans. As the cops forcefully arrest the African-American partiers, angry crowds quickly form to protest their brutal overreach, soon exploding into rioting. A tense, sweaty affair, shot up close and personal with handheld cameras that capture every panicky moment, the film carefully reconstructs – from meticulous research and gathered testimonies – terrifying outrages committed by three white supremacist police officers who were more or less left to their own devices by other police, national guardsmen and compromised African-American security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). The film then anatomises the flawed investigative and judicial processes that enabled the three policemen to get away with literal murder, and the ramifying damage done both to those who survived the traumatic incident, and to the friends and families of those who did not. The sight of Dismukes vomiting after seeing the trio’s ringleader Philip Krauss smiling at the trial expresses the sense of disgust that pervades the film.
In other words, Detroit exposes, blow by harrowing blow, ingrained and institutionalised complicity in racism at all levels of society. It is both The Battle of Algiers for America, and an incendiary chapter in a history still unfinished in this era of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the Black Lives Matter movement that was triggered by their deaths at police hands. ‘It’s 1967, asshole!’, a character protests at the gross illiberalism of the police. Well, it’s 2017 now, and how much has really changed for black people living in the USA?
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Venue: William Loveless Hall