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Clear and present history of cops killing black men

  • 05 November 2017


Detroit (MA). Director: Kathryn Bigelow. Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever. 143 minutes

Following spates of killings of black American civilians by white police officers in recent (and not so recent) years, Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit is very much of the moment. It is also firmly grounded in true history, its opening act weaving archival news footage with documentary style recreations of the racially charged Detroit 12th Street Riot of July 1967, a moment poised against the rise of the civil rights movement and the increasing disenfranchisement of urban blacks.

A cross-section within a cross-section of that moment in history, the incident at the Algiers hotel — where three citizens, all black, were beaten and killed by Detroit police — forms the centerpiece of Bigelow's film.

Amid the chaos in the early part of the film she picks out a number of characters whose lives are destined to converge later at the Algiers. They include aspiring singer Larry (Smith), his friend Fred (Latimore), and Dismukes (Boyega), a security guard at a local store who recognises the growing danger to black men, and in trying to avoid it becomes complicit in it.

The precise events of that night have never been (as the film points out in a title card at its conclusion) legally established, and so the film's villains of the Detroit Police Department are fictionalised. (There's also a somewhat obligatory #notallcops moment, but we won't get into that here.)

Their ringleader is Philip Krauss (Poulter), a hotheaded and borderline psychotic young cop who is convinced that it is in the black population's interests that the uncivilised violence of their riot be met with the civilised violence of the state. As the film has it, he has already shot and killed a fleeing, unarmed looter on the day he is fated to wind up at the Algiers. As such the film ratchets up plenty of justified outrage before the events at the motel have been arrived at.

The events at the motel are portrayed gruellingly, and at length. The Detroit police are convinced there is a gun on the premises. We know that the most deadly weapon present is a noisy but harmless starter pistol. Most of the patrons present at the motel are young black men, and they endure physical and psychological torture as Krauss and co. try to coerce testimony from them.


"Detroit probes power not just in the context of racial inequality, but more broadly as a psycho-social facet of