Filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow brought another true story to the screen with this weekend’s Detroit. The film focuses on a specific moment during the 1967 12th Street Riots called the “Algiers Motel Incident.” The incident at a motel about a mile from where the riots began ended with the deaths of three black teenagers and nine others injured by a task force made up of members of the Detroit Police Department, Michigan State Police and the Michigan Army National Guard.
Bigelow’s film was written by Mark Boal, who also worked with her on The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. The film’s ensemble cast includes John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Will Poulter, John Krasinski, Jeremy Strong, Malcolm David Kelly, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Algee Smith and Jason Mitchell.
“I think predominantly it was an opportunity to telescope this giant canvas of the uprisings down to a particular crime event that [was] first presented to me … right around the Ferguson, Mo., incident,” Bigelow told NPR when asked what attracted her to the Algiers Motel story. “And so I was kind of really emotionally moved by that. And felt that this story was an American tragedy that was important enough to be told.”
Here’s what you need to know about the incident that inspired the film.
1. The Incident Happened on July 25, 1967 During the 12th Street Riot in Detroit
The incident took place during the 12th Street Riot. The 1967 riots in Detroit resulted in the deaths of 43 people and 342 injured over five days.
The 12th Street Riot started after a police raid of a “blind pig,” a local name for an unlicensed, after-hours bar. As The Daily Beast noted, most of the police officers were white and nearly everyone in the neighborhood was black. William Walter Scott III, a 19-year-old, threw a bottle at a police officer, which ignited the riot as tensions boiled over.
According to History.com, 1,700 stores were looted and nearly 1,400 buildings were burned. The riots caused around $50 million in property damage. The Detroit riots were the third-worst in U.S. history, behind the 1863 New York Draft Riots and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
As the riot was going on, the Algiers Motel Incident began on July 25, 1967. A block away from the hotel, was the Great Lakes Mutual Life Insurance, which was being guarded by police and members of the National Guard. A private security guard, Melvin Dismukes, was at a nearby store. Guardsman Ted Thomas thought he heard a gunshot near the motel and a large group of officers and Guardsmen arrived at the scene.
“The reality of it is that African-American and white Detroiters were living in two different worlds when it came to the way that the police were oriented towards them,” historian Jamon Jordan told Michigan Radio in July 2017. “The police department was about 95% white in a city that was becoming about 40% African-American. And for years this had been a problem. There were so many complaints about racist brutality and harassment, and of course, some shootings of African-Americans who were unarmed.”
2. 3 Unarmed Black Teens Were Killed in the Incident After Being Suspected as Snipers
The shot that sparked the incident was possibly a starter pistol fired into the air by one of the three black teens who were killed, according to testimony. As The Detroit News reportsm there were no weapons found at the scene, but it’s believed that the start’s pistol is what sparked fears that there was a sniper.
The three teens killed – Carl Cooper, 17, Fred Temple, 18, and Auburey Pollard, 19 – were listening to music with two white women, Juli Hysell and Karen Malloy, when officers responded to the scene. Robert Lee Greene, a witness, later told authorities that he thought the teens were killed in cold blood. Greene, Hysell and Malloy also said the police threatened to kill them and beat them.
In the film, Cooper is played by Jason Mitchell, and Jacob Latimore stars as Temple. Pollard is played by Gbenga Akinnabve.
“The main thing we want people to feel is empathy — we don’t want people to feel guilty about it,” Latimore said of the film in an interview with WWD. “This is obviously a piece of history that we want to grow from and have grown from, but it is still unfortunately our reality in the news today. This is something that happened 50 years ago, and to see that things haven’t really changed, you get different opinions. Some people feel guilty and others feel deep empathy. People want to talk about it more and understand. I think that’s our goal: to educate, create empathy and create a dialogue. We don’t have answers to how to fix this issue, but I think it’s important that we talk about it and have an open discussion. It’s a raw, uncut, uncomfortable story, but it happened, and we have to move on and grow from those things as people.”
3. The First Teen Killed Was Carl Cooper & No One Was Ever Charged In His Death
The first teen killed was Carl Cooper, as Time Magazine noted in its review of John Hersey’s detailed 1968 book The Algiers Motel Incident. Cooper was shot just inside the door. After that, they dragged people out of their rooms and lined them up against the wall. At this point, the civilians said they were beaten. Hersey reported that Hysell and Malloy were stripped naked and called “ni**er lovers.”
Pollard was killed when he was dragged into another room by Officer Ronald August, who admitted to killing Pollard. Temple was shot by Officer Robert Paille, who claimed he shot Temple in self defense. The officers didn’t report the teens’ deaths to the Detroit Police Homicide Bureau. It was Charles Hendrix, who ran the security firm responsible for the motel’s security that found the bodies.
Cooper’s death was never fully explained and no one was charged in relation to his death.
However, Pallie, August and another officer, David Senak, were taken to court. As The Detroit News notes, Pellie was charged with first-degree murder with Temple’s death, and his admission of guilt was deemed inadmissible because he wasn’t read his Miranda rights yet. His case was dismissed.
The officers also faced conspiracy charges, but those were dismissed because of a lack of evidence. They were also tried for violating civil rights before an all-white jury in Flint, but they were found not guilty.
4. Melvin Dismukes, a John Boyega’s Character, Was the First Person Charged for Actions During the Incident
John Boyega, who plays Finn in the new Star Wars movies, stars in the film as Melvin Dismukes, a black security guard. He was the first person charged for actions during the incident. He was Accused of allegedly clubbing a person during the raid, but he was found not guilty.
In an interview with Variety, Dismukes said the film is about “99.5 percent” accurate.
“I just hoped to calm the situation down that was going on in the lobby. I wanted to help people stay alive, so I did my best to do what I thought would protect them,” Dismukes told Variety when asked about that night.
Dismukes said the events still have an impact on his life, 50 years later. “I find that I am more timid of meeting people on the street — people still ask me if I was the guy from the Algiers, and it can be frightening because a lot of people turned on me after what happened, and I never know what to expect,” he told Variety.
5. Bigelow Hopes the Film Inspires Dialogue & She Felt a Responsibility to Tell the Story as a Filmmaker
Most of Bigelow’s recent films have a foundation in historical facts. The Hurt Locker was set during the Iraq War, while Zero Dark Thirty told the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. All of those films sparked dialogues about their subjects and Bigelow hopes Detroit does the same.
“These events seem to recur — this is a situation that was 50 years ago, yet it feels very much like it’s today,” Bigelow told NPR. “And I think, you know, you look at South Africa, where there’s truth and reconciliation, and here I feel like there’s not enough conversation about race. And so I think the film has the potential to provide an opportunity to engage in that dialogue. … I can only hope that there’s an urgency and a necessity for it. … There’s no other way for a healing process to begin.”
She also said that, as a filmmaker, she has “a kind of microphone” to tell stories and create conversations and she has a responsibility to do so.
There have been critics of Bigelow’s decision to make the film. She is white, as is writer Boal. But the film’s cast has defended her.
“For me, if you are serious about this and if you are approaching this with respect and integrity, you’ll be willing to listen, you’ll have the right people around you, and also you will give the actors — especially the black actors on set — the best opportunity to portray these characters,” Boyega, a black U.K. actor, told Indiewire. “She did all of that. She approached it with respect, she had integrity. She was open to different ideas.”
Even Bigelow questioned her ability to tell the story. “I thought, ‘Am I the perfect person to tell this story? No,’” she told Variety. “However, I’m able to tell this story, and it’s been 50 years since it’s been told.”