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Detroit and the riots - did we learn anything?

Will Poulter, as police officer Krauss left, with Anthony Mackie's war veteran Greene (image credit: 'Twin Cities')

WHITE PEOPLE bring about racial tension, black people respond with violence and unrest, white people quell the violence by any means necessary and order is restored. And so goes the narrative for just about every uprising in the western world, so, what makes Detroit worth going to see if we’ve seen it all before?

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Detroit focuses on the events that transpired one terrifying evening during the civil unrest that tore apart the city of Detroit, and its traumatic aftermath.

Bigelow, who also directed The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, has taken all kinds of stick for being a white person telling the story of how black people were treated during a time when the country was beset by growing political and social unrest. In short, racial tension was at a maximum, and there are two sides to that story – one for white people and one for black people.

‘How dare she tell the story when she can no way connect with the black persons narrative or experience,’ people may say.

To be fair, she does a decent job. Some of the characters involved in the movie – including John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes, are still alive. It stands to reason that their involvement in a consultative capacity in this movie is to retain authenticity, accuracy and a realness that no white person could reproduce.


STREET WARFARE: Officers stand firm on the streets in the movie

Aside from the black narrative, though, the story of white people during that period is also interesting, and deserves to be told as diligently as anyone else’s. While white people were not the victim during the 1967 Detroit riots, their roles, be it aggressor or one of pacifist, is an integral part of the story and one we all can learn from. On the subject of being passive, those who are of a more fiery nature will find themselves distinctly frustrated by Boyega’s character in Detroit.

Melvin Dismukes is a security guard who is protecting a local grocery store from looters and is drawn into the mayhem of the Algiers Motel. The motel is the central theme for most of the movie, and is host to some of the most significant scenes throughout.

On playing the role of Dismukes, Boyega said:

“Melvin Dismukes is an interesting character, a decent man who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He went to the Algiers to serve as an unspoken guardian to those young men, thinking he could do good by being present to look after them and ultimately, being blamed for trying to do the right thing, not only by the law but by his own community.”

Boyega admitted that having spent time with Dismukes, he had developed a bond with the man he was portraying. He added:

“I’d never played a real person before, and Melvin spoke about his experience at great depth. He spoke from the perspective of his feelings – how he reacted when certain things happened, and contradictions that were going on in his mind. He spoke of how he felt misrepresented to his own people, as well as to the law. He was a man who was given a task he wasn’t prepared to undertake and then condemned for it.”


BEHIND THE CAMERA: Kathryn Bigelow, hailed for her work on The Hurt Locker, released in 2009, also produced and directed Detroit

Prior to the launch of Detroit in the UK last month, Boyega said that if he had learned anything from being in the movie, it was that there was essentially more than one way to achieve your goal - and that sometimes, patience is the order of the day.

“With Melvin he was in a hard situation because he is trying to balance two worlds, two opinions – and that can be tricky.

“We discussed many things and one of the things that stood out to me was that he had to move out of Detroit for a while because of being labelled an Uncle Tom – all those things are harmful, but it's a hard line to trail, and I have questioned that in myself.

“There are things that go on that I am very passionate about, but there is a strategic way that can guarantee a more positive outcome, rather than just being instant and unforgiving about it – and that is definitely something that I have learned.”

Many people wouldn’t have known about the Detroit riots – Bigelow deserves credit for giving the riots attention at a time when the world could do with remembering the lessons from the perils of yesteryear.

While the movie won’t be deemed a classic by the masses, it will have attracted the attention of those who look to the arts to do more than just titillate. There’s something for everyone in this movie – whether they’re white or black.

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