Kathryn Bigelow’s angry howl of a movie deals with the infamous Algiers Motel Incident of 1967, one of the most shameful abuses of civil rights in America’s history. It’s certainly not an easy film to watch, but it’s undeniably powerful and recreates the events with an almost forensic eye for period detail.
Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is the luckless security guard who finds himself drawn into events at the motel after one of the residents plays a practical joke with a starting pistol, a joke that goes horribly wrong. A bunch of Detroit police officers, led by the openly racist Krauss (Will Poulter), enter the motel with guns drawn, determined to find the ‘sniper’ they believe is holed up there. Dismukes has the unenviable task of trying to maintain some kind of equilibrium amidst the rising tension, while Krauss, already in trouble for shooting an unarmed man in an earlier incident, is determined to make an arrest. The problem is, he isn’t particularly choosy about how he selects the so-called perpetrator.
The film quickly develops into a tense confrontation between the police and their captives, who are subjected to a terrifying ordeal that some of them, sadly, do not survive. The film then goes beyond the incident itself to examine the resulting trial and its woeful verdict. Brit actor John Boyega plays Dismukes with dignity and steely determination and there’s a fine turn from Algee Smith, as a vocalist on the edge of stardom, whose life is suddenly and irrevocably affected by the events at the motel. But it’s Poulter who is the revelation here, playing a ruthless, smirking scumbag, a role that’s about a million miles away from his usual comfort zone. Clearly, Bigelow spotted something in that angelic face that was capable of portraying evil – and it’s interesting to note that the actor was attached to the role of Pennywise in the upcoming It before a change of director prompted him to bail out.
Detroit won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s long and harrowing and some liberties have been taken with the real story (the police officers’ names, for instance, have been changed, presumably in an attempt to protect the film-makers from lawsuits), but it’s nonetheless an important and profoundly affecting film that absolutely deserves to be seen and heard . I would strongly suggest that you grab the opportunity to do exactly that.