Fifteen major cities in the United States experienced riots during the “long hot summer” of 1967. In each case, the police provided the trigger, and the result was a national commission on the causes as well as numerous academic studies to explain who rioted and why. Detroit, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, attempts to reenact the origins of the riot, some of the street violence, the Algiers Motel Incident, and the trial of three police officers responsible for three deaths in the motel. Screenwriter Mark Boal, though not a Detroiter, evidently relied on interviews of those who were present during the week-long disturbance. The film begins and ends with titles that quickly provide some basic facts, such as the movement of 6 million African Americans from the South to the North during the early part of the twentieth century. Mentioned briefly in the film is the fact that Detroit experienced a race riot in 1943, when Whites from the South, who also migrated north in search of Motor City jobs, engaged in fistfights with Blacks at one of the automobile factories, and soon a riot spread throughout downtown. Although one title explains that middle class Whites after World War II moved to the suburbs, the linkage between suburbanization and the 1943 riot is not mentioned. Also not revealed is the fact that White Flight was facilitated by the construction of a freeway from downtown to the suburbs in the early 1960s that deliberately destroyed homes of the Black middle class, who then moved to sections of town inhabited by poorer Whites, some of whom joined the police force with a motivation to keep order is a changing city as middle class Blacks rose socioeconomically above poorly educated Whites.

But Detroit focuses on the impact of the riots on many people, particularly the music group The Dramatics, one of Motown’s best, as the editing of the 143-minute films does not allow sufficient time to become familiar with many of those depicted, and the account may or may not be completely accurate, since conflicting memories have faded over the past 50 years. After demonstrating how the riot began with a police raid of an unlicensed after hours club, the Blind Pig, the scene shifts to street arson, looting, and violence, and then The Dramatics become the focus. One evening they get a break to perform to a packed audience at the Fox Theater (though most filming is actually in Boston and its suburbs), yet police suddenly require patrons to go home due to chaos outside. Some performers find difficulty going home, so they check into the Algiers Motel, where many are staying because the curfew prevents them from trekking home. Carl Cooper (played by Jason Mitchell), one of those in the facility sets off a toy gun during a party, but the sound is perceived by police outside as a sniper trying to kill them. Police, led by Patrolman Krauss (Will Poulter), then raid the motel, terrorize all those present, including brutal beatings of seven Blacks and two White women, and three Blacks are shot dead. Although some members of Michigan state police and the Michigan National Guard go to the motel and find ongoing civil rights violations by the police, they are depicted as leaving the motel so to avoid involvement. Later, after the riot ends, The Dramatics recover to perform again, but their lead singer is so shaken up by the experience that he does not join the group, as evidently going downtown would bring back memories of horror.
Detroit depicts a time when Detroit police were ordered not to shoot at mere looters, thereby posing the question why police today have been so trigger happy yet riots on the scale of Detroit have not occurred. The Political Film Society has nominated Detroit as the best film of 2017 in several categories—best film exposé, best film raising consciousness about human rights issues, and best film on the virtues of resolving conflict peacefully. MH