It's safe and easy to hate the lunatic cop who drives much of the action (and the violence) in "Detroit," which opens in wide release Aug. 4 but is now playing in advance in Atlanta, exclusively at Regal Atlantic Station.
With his eyebrows fixed at a sinister arch and every word out of his mouth a rabid bark, the character played by Will Poulter is a near cartoonish villain (he literally looks like Sid, the animated bully in "Toy Story") who terrorizes black hotel guests after responding to the scene to "investigate" on the flintiest of evidence.
"It's possible we made a mistake," he snarls after presiding over evil that can't be undone.
But what about the Michigan State Police officers, who know all hell's breaking loose inside the Algiers Motel, having seen Detroit cops brutalizing innocent civilians, but decide to move along anyway? Or the National Guardsman who spirits two white girls from the mayhem ("Thank you for saving us," one says tearfully) but otherwise declares things a local police matter? To say nothing of the police supervisor who set a rogue cop loose on the public to begin with.
The movie, based on what's genteelly known to history as the Algiers Motel Incident, and directed by Kathryn Bigelow of "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty" fame, delves into a cruel and harrowing moment in time. The nightmare unfolded amid Detroit's 12th Street Riot in July 1967, precipitated by a raid on a private party black residents held to celebrate a returning Vietnam War vet. No one ever called him the N-word in Saigon, a poster on the wall points out.
Here's the trailer:
"I know that was very rough to watch, but I feel like we can talk about it a little bit," said Algee Smith, who plays Cleveland Larry Reed, a talented vocalist who got caught up in the maelstrom that awful night - a night that started out with him hoping to take the stage at Detroit's Fox Theatre for a Motown debut with his group, The Dramatics. Smith appeared at a Thursday screening at Atlantic Station for the African American Film Critics Association.
"This is important because it’s truth. Truth is important no matter what time it comes to you," Smith said. "This movie highlights injustice. It gives people a chance to tell their stories."
He got a chance to spend time with the person he portrays on screen. Other members of the cast did not have that opportunity. Not to drop any spoilers, but the movie, which the filmmakers note is based on factual events but is dramatized, involves a police-involved shooting in 1967. How do you think it turned out?
Philando Castile, beloved at the elementary school where he worked in the cafeteria, bled to death virtually on air in 2016, after a Minnesota police officer shot him and his girlfriend steeled herself to post the aftermath on Facebook Live. Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter and other charges.
Castile died a day after Alton Sterling was shot to death outside a Baton Rouge convenience store. The U.S. Justice Department didn't find evidence sufficient to charge the officers involved . Cleveland officers in 2014 shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun, in a public park. The grand jury decided not to indict .
How do you think a police-involved shooting in 1967 turned out?
"All cops aren’t bad, I had to tell myself that," Smith said, discussing the impact of the film on him. "Somebody breaks into my house, I want to be able to call the police."
Still, he said whenever he's driving and a police car drives by, he tenses.
"We want you to walk out of here feeling however you feel," he said. "Whether that’s mad as hell or .. 'Oh, that was 50 years ago.'"
The movie left Detroit native Cynthia Jones shaken.
“I was 12 years old when the riots came," she said during the Q&A that followed the screening. " As the movie illustrated, there are some policemen who are wicked. My prayer is we as a people will be able to come together. If nothing else, just pray and come to God for answers.”
She turns to Scripture for sustenance, specifically 2 Chronicles, 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Jones exited the auditorium and I caught up with her in the lobby, wanting to hear more about her experience.
“It was exciting to be a black family that had something that was their own, to start something my father thought would bless our family," she said, referring to her family's store. "My father worked hard.”
Riots left many businesses burned out or vandalized, but as depicted in "Detroit," some black-owned businesses were spared when proprietors wrote"Soul Brother" on the windows.
“Where we lived was not far from the riots," she said. "What saved us is we were nestled into a neighborhood."
Although her family's shop was spared her city was destroyed.
“Our city was a beautiful city. When I was a girl we could go all over the city. Afterward it was never the same," she said. "Here we are, 50 years later, and the city never has been totally restored."
"Detroit" depicts its time period with vintage clothing, music and cars. A hotel room at the Algiers goes for $11 a night. People smoke all the time and call each other "cat."
But scenes where policemen insist unarmed black men made them fear for their lives and turn to deadly force - or where victims' own arrest records are sifted through - feel sickeningly current.
" What happened in Detroit is what happens to people when they are subjected to treatment that acts to remove the heart, soul, dignity and self-worth of a person. Hopelessness occurs and that can lead to rebellion," Jones said. "How can we as a nation allow this to continue? When are we going to rise up and come together to pray and take a stand? A stand against injustice, racism, and divisiveness in any form."
She and her husband, Quentin, moved 17 times over the years with his job as an auto industry executive and now live in the metro Atlanta area. Once, when returning from his father’s funeral in 2010, he was pulled over.
“Because he was driving an Escalade, he was stopped," Jones said. "They said he was weaving in the road. I leaned over and said, ‘My husband just lost his father. Can we go home?’’’
I had my own brush with the law once, when I 15 and driving my dad's 1965 Mustang to the store. That car was a beauty but its gadgets didn't all work. Unaware I was driving on fumes, I came to a stop in the middle of a busy street (as busy as the streets got in Rocky Mount, N.C., where the population was under 50,000).
I was driving illegally, not with my parents’ approval exactly but tacit assent, the way some people pretend not to notice their 19-year-old sipping champagne at a family wedding. The state of North Carolina had issued me a driver's permit but not yet a license, since I wasn't 16. Yet my only thought when I saw blue lights flashing behind me, an underage driver blocking traffic was, "Whew! Help has arrived!"
Sure enough, the policeman asked what was going on and I said I thought the car was probably out of gas since the gauge didn't work. The officer, who didn't even ask my name, much less ask for ID, took a moment to admire my dad's vintage wheels, then he and another officer pushed me out of the road and up to a gas pump. The car happened to conk out within feet of a gas station, another stroke of luck.
I filled up and went on about my merry way and never thought about it again. Until just now.