Fifty years ago, a police raid on an after-hours illegal drinking club, called a “blind pig,” sparked five days of violence in Detroit, resulting in 7,000 arrests, 1,100 injuries and 43 deaths. Three young black men—Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard and Fred Temple—were shot and killed on July 25, the third day of what is referred to, depending on how woke you are, as either the 12th Street riot or the 1967 Detroit rebellion, in the annex of the Algiers Motel.
Other victims, two young white women and seven young black men, described being beaten and tortured in the motel that night by members of the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police, the Michigan Army National Guard and a private security guard responsible for protecting a grocery store across the street, called to the location after reports of sniper fire coming from the motel. (Evidence of a sniper was never found.)
What is known of the events that led to the deaths of the three young black men during the Algiers Motel Incident is as relevant as ever, and a reckoning is long past due. But the latest collaboration between the Oscar-winning duo of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”), a semi-fictitious imagining of that night, is too shallow to offer indemnity.
Justifiably, Bigelow shoots the initial disorder with the same rapid-fire, shaky camerawork she brought to filming recognized war zones. Embedding the camera in the action, while also seamlessly integrating historical photos and footage, is a progressive, political act. Although the developments are set in the past, their presentation, as well as the systems that brought them to a head, are stubbornly current.
It's when the script turns to those who were trapped in the Algiers that night that the story seems fabricated in its unambiguous oversimplification. Both victims and captors are drawn with broad strokes. English actor Will Poulter plays the fictionalized cop Krauss as a psychopath driven to rabid insanity by racism. There's never any doubt as to the affiliation of black security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), despite his alliance with the police officers.
In fact, Dismukes was the first to be charged, along with three police officers, with felonious assault, conspiracy, murder and conspiracy to commit civil rights abuse, but all were found not guilty. Responding officers claimed to have found Cooper's body on the scene when they arrived. Pollard's and Temple's deaths were attributed to "justifiable homicide" or "self-defense." Yet, Boal's script merely skims over the trials and exonerations. In a film that exists to point fingers, the discharge of due process is an unfortunate lapse.
The opening sequence—the animation of artist Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series—may be the most moving beat in the film. It's an apt history lesson to anyone still on the fence between calling a violent protest an "uprising" or a "riot."