Detroit ’67: a study in terror and tension

19 October 2017

DETROIT IS a study in terror, torture and tension, a masterclass that is painstakingly slow in revealing the fate of seven black men and two white women, holed up in the Algiers Motel one night in downtown Detroit in 1967.

By 1967, the civil rights movement had reached the northern States. Oakland, Chicago and Detroit were working-class cities where young whites had started to mix with young blacks in unlicensed speakeasies, but the where police were also still riddled with racists.

The police raided one such event, leading to days of rioting, looting and shootings; about 40 were killed in real life. Officer Philip Krauss (played by the excellent Will Poulter) shoots down one unarmed shoplifter in the back, who is then given sanctuary by security guard Melvin Dismukes (played by the equally brilliant John Boyega). Krauss is admonished but fatally allowed back on patrol.

Meanwhile The Dramatics, a black soul group in the style of The Drifters, are on the verge of a recording breakthrough when their gig is cancelled due to the disturbances.

Two of them end up in the hotel, when a black man wants the white women to feel what it’s like to have the police on your back. He shoots blanks from a starter pistol by the window. Within minutes, the Algiers Motel is locked down.

The remainder of the film shows what happened after the police and National Guard enter the hotel, searching for a non-existent gun. Lined up facing the wall, one by one the men are taken into the next room, where they are shot – or a shot is fired over their heads to frighten the others.

This is a great film, which sets the scene without bravado and focuses unremittingly on the tragedy of a small group of youths. Its relevance today could not be overstated; in fact you cannot watch it without thinking of the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement.

It is a credit to the filmmakers that you barely notice that you have been in the cinema for over two and a half hours. You will come out, blinking into the bright lights but also reeling from the horror of racism backed by state forces

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