Back when he was a regular on “Saturday Night Live,” Eddie Murphy did a sketch called “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.” “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…but when I move in,” he deadpans sorrowfully, “you all move away.” I thought of this when the opening of “Detroit,” explains how “white flight” followed the mass migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities hoping for a better life, but resulted in job loss and general disarray for the residents who stayed behind when whites departed for the suburbs. The viewer is plunged immediately into the city-wide chaos that is triggered when policemen raid an after-hours bar in July of 1967, supposedly because they lack a liquor license. While cops and the National Guard are brought in to deal with the rioters, we witness a police officer (Will Poulter) shoot an unarmed man fleeing down an alley. When confronted with his crime by his superior officer, Will just shrugs and points out that well, a black guy carrying groceries probably has a firearm tucked on him somewhere. Thus the stage is set for the main act – and tragedy.
Fast forward to nighttime as our main characters (led by Algee Smith and Fred Latimore), who are about to have the night from Hell, wait in the wings to perform Motown (while the group onstage belts out a rousing, “Nowhere to Run”). They are soon interrupted by police who insist that everyone clear out and go home. Meanwhile another young man (John Boyega) gets a call that he has to show up unexpectedly at his second job: a security officer. While John attempts to make the best of the situation and establish from the start that he’s there to work with the authorities, Algee and Fred decide to take a room at a run-down hotel called the Algiers. When they meet two white young women, who claim to be from Cleveland, the group eventually migrates to the room of Jason Mitchell, whose hot dogs are a welcome refreshment but whose play with a starter pistol is not. After the foursome leaves, Jason then does something that triggers those patrolling the street nearby, which includes Will. Assuming there is a sniper on the hotel roof, Will and his colleagues rush the Algiers, killing several black men in the process, then proceed to take the two white women and their black companions hostage, not letting them leave while they interrogate/brutalize them for a harrowing several hours – which eventually leads to a trial in which justice is sort of served, but mostly (spoiler alert) not.
Though far apart in time and location, “Detroit” reminded me of “Dunkirk.” We’re introduced to several groups of men (mostly) behaving nobly as they deal with being under perpetual siege. We learn very little about their pasts, and it takes awhile before we even figure out all their names. However, we’re instantly drawn into their world and endure their ordeal beside them, hoping for the best. Sadly, the real life events did not result in a satisfying come-uppance for those who deserved it, but the movie is well worth seeing. “What a load of (expletive),” Will exclaims, high fiving his lawyer after being exonerated at the trial. However, you can’t say the same for “Detroit.”