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Detroit exposes the racism of US society in the 1960s

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Issue 2567
A Racist cop (Will Poulter) threatens one of the victims at the Algiers night hangout (Anthony Mackie)
A Racist cop (Will Poulter) threatens one of the victims at the Algiers night hangout (Anthony Mackie)

Soldiers in tanks roll nervously through abandoned streets.

A flutter of curtains in an upstairs apartment and a National Guardsman shouts, “Sniper”. Machine guns blaze, and glass and brickwork are smashed in a hail of bullets.

Behind the curtain was a young black girl who made the mistake of looking out her window.

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit grabs you by the throat from its opening minutes until the last.

The story of the 1967 Detroit Uprising was never going to be easy to tell. The scale of the revolt itself—five days of rioting involving 10,000 participants, 43 deaths and 1,200 people injured—makes picking out particular events difficult.

In the film, the chaos of police raids and shooting intermingle with looting and fires that spread across the city. They are interspersed with archive shots of the crumbling political establishment struggling to find a way to quell the rising.

The visual and narrative discord mix, creating a sense of tension and panic. In Detroit, events have a habit of spiralling out of control.


Bigelow has chosen the gruelling story of torture at the Algiers Motel to stand for the brutal racism that lay behind the riots.

A group of young black men and a couple of white women are hanging out in the Algiers, a place known as a party venue.

When the cops mistake a starting gun shot for sniper fire they raid the motel.

Already infuriated, the police are further enraged when they find an inter-racial group in one of the rooms. The possibility of inter-racial sex drives them wild with hatred.They set about torturing and then killing some of the guests that are now their captives.

Detroit holds nothing back. The agony of the victims is prolonged and as brutal as you are ever likely to see.

The action lasts for more than an hour and every minute is excruciating.The subsequent investigation and court case tell us everything we need to know about the 1960s US.

All the police officers are white. The judge and jury are white. The lawyers and expert witnesses are white—only the tortured victims and their families are black, and they are demonised almost as a matter of routine.

Rather than the traditional Hollywood depiction of racism, where a few rotten apples are responsible, Bigelow shows the workings of an entire racist system. But Detroit is not without weaknesses.

Black people are at the very centre of this film but the political consequences of the uprising are nowhere to be seen.

The riots were the harbinger of a new consciousness in the ghettos—Black Power.

Detroit is out on Friday 25 August

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