‘Today we stand amidst the ashes of our hopes. We hoped against hope that what we had been doing was enough to prevent a riot. It was not enough.’
– Jerome Cavanagh, Mayor of Detroit
Film has been utilised throughout the decades to entertain audiences while influencing their thinking and perspectives on the world. This nuance is an aspect of the entertainment industry that many have capitalised on to not only entertain but to educate the world about various philosophies, cultures and history. Kathryn Bigelow is a director who has established a career on providing a unique perspective on the world around us. From the life of a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the traumatic events that occurred behind the apprehension of Osama Bin Laden, the Academy Award-winning storyteller has proven to be a master behind the camera. With her thoughtful analysis of the Detroit riots of the summer of 1967 and the events surrounding the killings at the Algiers Hotel, she has taken some heat from historians and critics for the liberties she has made with the facts. Will the controversy help or damage the credibility of the film?
The more extensive story begins with a police crackdown on an unlicensed club in a primarily black area of Detroit. The public arrest of returning war veterans and other members of the community became the catalyst for large-scale looting and mayhem. These anti-social acts escalated into the infamous 12th Street riots that decimated much of the surrounding neighbourhood in the fifth largest city in America. The Michigan National Guard, State Police and the city police worked to maintain order, but with tensions growing and resources pushed to their limits, things became worse before the conclusion. In amongst the chaos, a practical joke went horribly wrong at an annexe of the Algiers Hotel which led to the deaths of a group of young black men at the hands of law enforcement.
Pushing aside the controversy surrounding Bigelow’s film, all that is left to judge is the merits of the film. The tension surrounding the historical events is rich with possibilities, and the performances by the young cast are excellent, but neither of these is enough to sustain the lengthy telling of the story. The duration does not completely derail the film but does make it less than accessible to the general populace.
The length of the film can be attributed to the extensive ensemble cast. The attempt to develop the multiple characters takes time and causes things to drag and it adds another challenge. It becomes difficult to determine who the central character is supposed to be through all of the strained situations. John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes and Algee Smith as Larry Reed provide critical figures that play a significant part of the narrative, but the three young police officers at the heart of the story also prove to be a fascinating study in multi-dimensional characters. With so many pieces to the puzzle, determining how everything fits together becomes confusing. Each actor delivers the needed aspect to the story, but with the inclusion of each new layer, the chaos of the riots spills over into the screenplay.
With all of the recent films that warn against racism in American culture, Bigelow’s film could easily be dismissed as another statement against this dark side of the human experience. She does provide an engaging retelling of the story that is both entertaining and educational, especially in her usage of actual footage being spliced into the story. Detroit may not be the best Bigelow film, but it is confronting and a forgotten portion of history that needs to be shared for the sake of cautioning society from repeating its past.
REEL DIALOGUE: What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?
1. Why are humans suspicious and violent? (Genesis 3, Matthew 15:19)
2. Does God care about overcoming obstacles in life?
(Psalm 27:1, Isaiah 41:3, James 1:19-21)
3. What does the Bible have to say about racism?
(John 7:24, James 2:9, 1 John 2:9)
4. How are we to respond to negativity and hate?
(Proverbs 6:16-19, John 15:18-16:4 )