The True Story Behind Kathryn Bigelow's New Film, Detroit

Warning: If you consider historical events a spoiler, then this article is full of them.
Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, Detroit, renders in excruciating detail one of the most disturbing events in American history: The Algiers Motel incident. Detroit spends a chunk of its two and a half hour run time in the lobby of the Algiers Motel annex, where Detroit police used brutal questioning tactics on a group of Black teenagers and white women, to horrific results.
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For context, the Algiers Motel incident occurred on the evening of July 25, 1967, during the five-day period in which Detroit was subsumed by violence and lawlessness. The Detroit Uprising lasted five full days, and resulted in a slew of shocking statistics: 43 individuals dead, 1,189 injured, 7,231 arrests, and 2,509 stores burned or looted.
The riots began on the early morning of Sunday, July 23, after the vice squad of the Detroit Police Department raided a party at a “blind pig,” or an unlicensed bar, at the intersection of 12th Street and Clairmount.
Though it was 3:30 in the morning, many people were still partaking in 12th Street's vibrant nightlife scene. Consequently, a crowd of 200 spilled out onto the streets to watch as police called another van to fit the 82 partygoers, who had gathered to celebrate the homecoming of two G.I.s from Vietnam.
By 5 a.m., the crowd, incited by the police’s use of excessive force, took action. Bottles were smashed. A store was broken into. By 6:30, the first buildings were set on fire; as the day grew warmer and the winds stronger, the fires spread. Later in the day, firefighters entirely abandoned the 100 square-foot area around Twelfth Street.
In the evening, the National Guard arrived, and the mayor implemented a curfew. As police reinforcements grew, so too did arrests. Temporary jails were set up to house all of the accused.
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On Tuesday, July 25, Governor George Romney ordered 8,000 National Guardsmen and 800 police officers to the city, but the violence continued. The rebellion ended on Thursday, July 27, when president Lyndon B. Johnson sent in 4,700 paratroopers. Detroit was forever changed.
Instead of tackling the entirety of the Detroit Uprising, Bigelow's film focuses on a single event that occurred the night of July 25.
The incident, which the Detroit News called "one of the haunting tragedies of Michigan’s long history," began when authorities heard the sound of gunshots coming from the vicinity of the Algiers Motel, an institution with a reputation for housing criminal activity and prostitution.
Convinced a sniper was hiding out within the small motel annex, a task force of the Detroit police, the Michigan State Police, and the National Guard rounded up the individuals inside and questioned them using brutal interrogation tactics for hours.
In the process, Carl Cooper, 17, Fred Temple, 18, and Aubrey Pollard, 19, were all fatally shot by police. Nine more individuals were beaten and psychologically tortured. In the end, the gun the police were looking for was never found.
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The three white officers who perpetrated these crimes — Ronald August, Robert Paille, and David Senak — were put on trial in 1969 for murder, conspiracy, and federal civil rights violations. The all-white jury ruled them not guilty on all charges.
Detroit captures the tension that had long been brewing between the police and the Black citizens of Detroit. As the film points out, a 95% white police force patrolled a city with a 40% Black population.
“Most African-Americans, at that time, felt that the police department was like an occupying force or an occupying army, that you had to do what they said," historian Jamon Jordan explained in a talk at the Detroit Historical Museum
That said, we can’t chalk five days of insurrection up to a single blind police raid. The rebellion was a response to systemic injustices Black individuals had been grappling with in Detroit, including shoddy housing, poor job prospects, bad schools, and inadequate social services.
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These conditions were not limited to Detroit. Earlier that summer, the Black population of Newark, New Jersey, revolted for four days following a clash with police; the year prior, Cleveland also experienced similar upheaval.
“Where did such fury come from? I believe it came from nothing less than four blood-soaked centuries of American history, a history that is still being played out today,” wrote Bill Morris, author of the novel Motor City Burning, for The Daily Beast.
Fifty years have passed since the events depicted in Detroit. Still, watching the account unfold onscreen, you’ll be shaken to the core by their prescience.
As director Bigelow so aptly told to NPR, “These events seem to recur — this is a situation that was 50 years ago, yet it feels very much like it's today.”
Detroit comes to theaters in wide release on Friday, August 4.
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