It’s not like America needs another reason to be furious about the ongoing, one-sided war being waged on its black population by its police, but nevertheless, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s upcoming film Detroit looks like it’ll be compulsory viewing. As we reported when the film’s first trailer was released in April, it depicts the events of the 1967 riots in the city, and specifically, the events at the Algiers Motel, where three black men were killed by police and nine others (two white women and seven black men) were beaten brutally.
Exactly what happened in the room where the men were killed has always been controversial; police were charged in two of the murders but found not guilty, and no charges were ever brought in relation to the other death. The police, who responded to an incorrect report that there were snipers at the motel, allegedly played a terrifying “game”, interrogating, torturing and eventually murdering one of the men in the room.
It’s unclear on whose accounts the film is based; the definitive history of the incident is John Hersey’s 1968 book The Algiers Motel Incident, but Hersey was adamant that no film rights to the book would ever be sold (and conducted some of the interviews therein on that assurance.) Regardless of its source material, Detroit looks riveting (and its arrival, exactly 50 years after the motel incident, is a reminder of how little has changed in this country.) A second trailer was released today, including footage of the interrogation of security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). It reframes the film from Dismukes’ point of view.
This is important, because Dismukes — who was working security on the fateful night, and who went to the police of his own volition to offer an eyewitness account — was the first, and for quite some time the only, person against whom charges were brought. As Hersey’s book relates, this did not go unnoticed:
Two of the families of the victims of the murders at the Algiers asked me the same question, in effect: Why was the first man to be picked out at a show-up, why was the first man to be arrested for all that happened at the Algiers, why was the only man involved int he case to be charged with felonious assault, why was the first man to be bound over for trial, why was the first man to be taken into court in a hearing — why was this man a black man?
The answer is exactly what you think it is. To emphasize this point, the trailer concludes with a brief shot of the real Melvin Dismukes, who states, “I went down there to tell my side of the story, and then to get everything turned around and get charged with first-degree murder? It hurt.” That seems like the understatement of the century; Dismukes was made a scapegoat for killings carried out by police. He was eventually found not guilty of conspiracy and felonious assault (no murder charge was ever filed against him), but his reputation was ruined, and some still considered him culpable in the killings, given that he may have been present for, and/or participated in, the interrogation. Amongst other things, he received death threats from the Black Panthers, and a parallel “court” set up by a coalition of Detroit black leaders found him guilty and “sentenced” him to death.
This all means that Detroit is walking a pretty subtle line. How successfully it manages to do so remains to be seen.
Detroit is released on August 4.