Magazine article The New Yorker

Times of Trouble

Magazine article The New Yorker

Times of Trouble

Article excerpt

Times of Trouble

"Detroit" and "Whose Streets?"

In "Detroit," Kathryn Bigelow's new movie, John Boyega is the watchful eye at the heart of a roiling tempest.

For a movie that tells a true story of violent death, Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit" begins in a very strange way. A series of crude animated images, like paper cutouts, fills the screen with a potted history of African-American migration from South to North, and of the prejudice that has greeted and thwarted the black population. The ensuing unrest is illustrated by cartoon flames. It's hard to conceive of a more sombre theme, so why are we leafing through a children's picture book?

Soon enough, we see the light of real fires. This is Detroit, in late July, 1967, when riots spread across town. What ignited them, and what gets the movie going, is a police raid on an after-hours illegal drinking club, better known as a "blind pig." The clientele, entirely African-American, is hauled outside and arrested; a crowd materializes to protest; a rock is used to smash open a store. For the next few days and nights, the ferment barely subsides. Just as we're wondering to what extent Bigelow will honor the promise of her title--how do you dramatize a whole city?--the movie narrows its gaze, and a large proportion of the story unfolds not merely in a particular neighborhood but in a single doom-ridden hallway. To be in that hall, indeed, is to inhabit a kind of hell, for the powerful and the powerless alike, and you get a sickening sense that "Detroit" cannot tear itself away.

The hall is in the Algiers Motel, in central Detroit. It is a matter of historical record that within those walls, on the long hot night of July 25th, three black men died from gunshot wounds. What is less clear is the exact sequence of events. Shots were heard, reportedly coming from the motel, and police officers, fearing a sniper attack, moved in, to be joined by state police and members of the National Guard. (No evidence of a sniper was ever produced.) Things escalated fast, and confusingly. John Hersey, the author of "Hiroshima," wrote a book entitled "The Algiers Motel Incident," published only a year after the killings, but even his account, both impassioned and scrupulous, is a fragmentary affair--"not so much written as listened to, in bits and pieces," he admits. With that caution in mind, "Detroit" is best viewed as a plausible reconstruction. The motel becomes a stage, across which the principal characters pass.

There is a marine named Greene (Anthony Mackie), recently returned from Vietnam, although, as he discovers, his service to the nation carries less weight than the color of his skin. He is one of those unlucky souls--like Auburey Pollard (Nathan Davis, Jr.) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), or a couple of fun-hunting white women (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever)--who just happen to be at the motel, and who wind up in the hallway, standing and shaking as if before a firing squad. Ranged against them (for that's how it feels) are the cops. In ascending order of malice, we have Demens (Jack Reynor), Flynn (Ben O'Toole), and the inexcusable Krauss (Will Poulter), who will not leave the building until, by whatever means necessary, he learns who fired the alleged shots. All three men, like the overwhelming majority of Detroit police at that time, are white.

The screenwriter is Mark Boal, who collaborated with Bigelow on "The Hurt Locker" (2008), for which they won Oscars, and on "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012). The latter, like the new film, was a richly researched exercise in tension, gathering to a head in the hours of darkness, and it was fortified, rather than hindered, by its equivocation in regard to torture; as you followed Navy seals in their task--the elimination of Osama bin Laden--you felt a squirm of disquiet about the tactics that had led to this exhilarating quest. With "Detroit," the opposite is the case. Though the facts remain fuzzy, the moral aspect could hardly be more unambiguous. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.