Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Detroit, is already playing in select theaters before it expands to wide release on Friday. It chronicles the incidents leading up to and following a horrific altercation at the Algiers Motel that took place on July 25, 1967. In the midst of citywide riots, a group of people seeking refuge in the motel were beat and intimidated as police tried to get a confession. The officers were responding to the sound of gunfire and assumed one of the occupants of the motel was the shooter. Three Black men were killed. To be clear, Detroit is not based on John Hershey’s book The Algiers Motel Incident. Instead it uses source materials and interviews to create it’s own fictional account of the incidents. The film was able to take advantage of creative liberties in making another portrayal of the police enacting violence against Black people. But not all of the victims were Black men. Two of them, Karen Malloy and Julie Hysell, were white women. And after seeing the film, their presence is worth taking a closer look.
In the movie, when Detroit police officers storm the motel’s annex — a detached house where rooms are also rented out to guests — they find mostly Black people looking back at them. The armed officers bark orders and slam people against walls as they search for weapons. But when a couple of officers discover Malloy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Hysell (Hannah Murray) playing cards on a bed with Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie) they give pause. Greene is immediately struck with the butt of a gun and forced downstairs. Throughout their traumatic night, Hysell and Malloy are accused of being prostitutes pimped by Greene and sexually intimidated by officers. And at one point, one of the officers asks them directly, “Why do you have to fuck them? What’s wrong with us?”
Masculinity is fragile, but also intersectional. Racism can play a part in triggering the violent display of power that Detroit police inflicted on motel guests. That Malloy and Hysell were fraternizing and potentially having sex with Black men became another excuse to violate them. For better or for worse — during an interrogation, another officer insists that they are trying to “protect” Hysell and Malloy — white women are centered in respect to Black men. Where Get Out relied on horror/sci-fi to symbolically represent the dangers of this relationship dynamic, Detroit reminds us of the historical events that inspired said imagery.
This is not a condemnation of Julie or Karen. I firmly believe that there was nothing they could have done to prevent the violence enacted against them or their friends that night. They did not deserve the physical and sexual violence that happened to them, either. But even the real life Hysell admits to Variety, “I felt guilty because I was a white person and the black people were the ones who got killed. If we’d been two black girls, maybe none of this would have happened.” It’s definitely not a question that should be overlooked for viewers, either.