Nightmare on 12th Street. July 1967, a sweltering summer in Detroit. The city erupts into rebellion. Looting, arson, snipers. The Detroit Police Department is overwhelmed. Governor George W. Romney (yes – Mitt’s father) calls in the Michigan National Guard. President Lyndon B Johnson, after some tactical deliberation, sends in troops from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Michigan State Police join in. A curfew is imposed through the whole city. Five days later, after 7,200 arrests, 1,189 injured and 43 deaths, a calm of sorts is restored. Life will never be the same, and for some young people, there will be lasting trauma: their experience has been one of horror.

That experience of horror is the focus of Kathryn Bigelow’s film – a true life moment which came to be known as the Algiers Motel Incident. Three teenagers are among the dead: Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.), and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore). Their bodies are found, badly beaten, shot, in a motel where they had taken refuge from the rioting. The general circumstances around their deaths are clear and on the record. The exact circumstances, to this day, are not. Detroit, the film, purports to tell that story.

The film starts with the camera tracking across a series of 1940s paintings, The Great Migration, by the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence. It then plunges rapidly into the chaotic and violent moments leading up to the events at the Algiers Motel.

By 1967, Detroit remains heavily segregated, despite a sizable African-American middle-class; the local police force is almost entirely white. Meanwhile, the city’s decline, which had already started in the late 1940s, is under way.

It’s a cinematic treat to see how Bigelow depicts the early moments of that five-day rebellion. It’s the stuff of action movies. A celebration, for African-American Vietnam veterans just come home, takes place in an unlicensed after-hours drinking club. It’s on the premises of a community civil rights organisation, on the corner of 12th Street. Why there? Black customers tend to be discriminated against in other types of venues. And it is difficult for black business owners to obtain bar licences. The party gets broken up by a police raid. The many guests are carted off in black marias. A woman tells a policeman not to touch her. It’s a slow operation. Bystanders start to protest. Someone throws a bottle. And it all kicks off.

The action is explosive, immersive, brilliantly put together, as one expects of a Bigelow film. At times, it is difficult to determine what is original news footage and what is reconstruction: the transitions are seamless. In the chaos, a group of young people, including members of The Dramatics, the soul music group, take refuge in the down-at-heel Algiers Motel. This seems like a safe haven, if a bit seedy. It is night. For a while, people party, chat around the somewhat murky swimming pool, discuss jazz greats, play a Coltrane record.

This peace is violently disrupted. Police, army and guardsmen arrive, hunting for a sniper. They shoot at the building before storming in. Three police officers round up the motel’s occupants, who are almost all African-Americans. State police retreat quickly – they see a civil rights issue brewing up and want no part in it. Detroit police remain, and are in charge. They are joined by an African-American security guard, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). His role is ambiguous.

A violent nightmare begins. The policemen (Ben O’Toole and Jack Reynor) are led by their colleague Philip Krauss (Will Poulter). Krauss is presented as a zealous sociopath, eager to cleanse Detroit. He has already been reprimanded by his superiors for shooting a looter in the back, earlier that day.

Several young black men are detained, one of whom is Vietnam veteran Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie). There are also two young white women, Juli Hysell (Hannah Murray) and Karen Malloy (Kaitlyn Dever), visiting from Ohio. Krauss’s fervour is intensified by his disgust at what he assumes to be miscegenation. Juli and Karen are accused of being prostitutes, and Robert their pimp.

Krauss orders everyone to line up in a hallway, to face the wall, hands up. Who is the sniper, Krauss wants to know. Where is the gun? The death game starts. Psychological torture, severe beatings and humiliation. Krauss is a monster. He is about to inflict hell. There are no nuances to him (Krauss is a composite character; the names of the three police officers involved in the incident have been changed).

In the film, the suffering seems to last a whole night, a drawn-out agony. In real life, the harrowing moment at the Algiers Motel is thought to have lasted an hour – long enough. That is close to the amount of screen time the scene gets in the film. The violent interrogation in the motel is the extended centrepiece of the story. As a viewer, one wrestles with it, and then something becomes clear: there’s been a genre shift. This is a horror film.

At one level, this use of horror works exceedingly well, especially in the hands of such an exceptional director. Thanks to the techniques of the genre, the film becomes an immersive experience. The sense of jeopardy is unbearable; one shock comes after the other. The experience is visceral.

The central, and lasting images of the film, are that of a monster and his powerless victims – they are seen cowering, fleeing or dying – and it is the monster who becomes the star of the story. Krauss here – and Will Poulter’s performance is superb – is simply bad.

At another level, this is unsettling: is this the story of the Detroit rebellion?

Once Krauss realises he must relent, the narrative energy is spent. The final section of the film is a seemingly brief and by comparison flat account of the incident’s aftermath; the legal process starts but justice is not served. The reasons why, are shown in only very broad strokes.

It is impossible to get things exactly right, when the subject matter is so complex. Critical responses to Ava DuVernay’s excellent 2014 film, Selma, have demonstrated the challenges filmmakers confront when they create stories out of iconic historical events – even when they are punctilious about the historical record. Bigelow has an added challenge in that respect – there is confusion about what exactly happened within the Algiers Motel; she was also unable to obtain rights to a key reference text, written by John Hersey and based on interviews with most of the key participants in the months following the incident. Together with her writer, Marc Boal, Bigelow has had to take of view of what might have happened, and has used creative licence to construct key scenes. The film is very well researched and written, but it is not a documentary and not quite a historical drama.

Kathryn Bigelow is a versatile and extraordinarily accomplished film director. The film is a powerful indictment of injustice and racism. It is beautifully made and hard-hitting. Balancing the conventions of the horror film genre with the needs of a civil rights story is feasible. Where a film is based on an iconic moment in history, where legacy is important, then the balance becomes more problematic.

In the film, African-American women only appear in passing, minor figures. Yet Rosa Parks lived just a mile away from the Algiers Motel; she knew one of the victims’ family; she took an active part in the People’s Tribunal, which attempted to apply due process, symbolically, to provide a sense of justice and closure to those affected by the events at the Algiers Motel.

Meanwhile, the Detroit rebellion is now understood as an expression of agency and hope, not powerlessness. It is also referred to in Detroit as the Great Rebellion. The city may have been in decline in July 1967, but its people were not. They were making history.

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd
Production Designer: Jeremy Hindle
Editors: William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon
Cast: Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Nathan Davis Jr., Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben O’Toole, Jack Reynor, John Boyega, John Krasinski

First published on Screenwords, August 2017