Katheryn Bigelow’s Detroit ends with a text card stating that while every endeavor was made to ensure the movie’s accurate to its harrowing real life events, due to the closed nature of the central action beat several things were fabricated. As such, along with evaluating the distressing racial politics at play, one of the big questions coming out of the film is “what was changed”?
Detroit is nothing if not authentic – we are in a Bigelow film after all. It shows the gradual breakdown of the 1967 Detroit riots that turned the city into a war zone, specifically the Algiers Motel incident where white policemen tortured nine captives and murdered three black men, with a real unflinching eye for detail. Bar unavoidable creative license, the set up of the riots is highly accurate, while much of the covered up Algiers incident is built on genuine testimony from those there and their families, with the filmmakers using 1968 book The Algiers Motel Incident and conducting their own research to create the most comprehensive account possible. But that’s not without some alterations.
Before going into details, it’s worth remembering the true purpose of Detroit. Even if some facts are changed – which they are – the director’s now patented style (she previous lent her eye to bomb disposal with The Hurt Locker and the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty) gives as accurate a feel of the terrible event as possible. Melvin Dismukes, a black security guard who found himself a witness to the horrors played in the film by John Boyega, even said, “It is 99.5% accurate to what went down.” So what’s the 0.5%?
Philip Krauss Wasn’t Real
Probably the biggest alteration made to the film is that its central figure – Will Poulter’s terrifying Philip Krauss who acts as the main instigator of the crimes – isn’t real. Due to the nature of the case, where the policemen in the Algiers were found not guilty, it would be incredibly questionable to implicate any of the real officers; while history has shown that verdict flawed, it would still be controversial to accuse them directly. Instead, Krauss is an amalgam of several different police officers from the DPD at the time involved in the Algiers incident.
The same is also true of the other police in the building, who are versions of real people. Although in those cases the main differences are changes of names and slight shifting of who committed the actions; the actual outcome is accurate. For example, Jack Reynor’s Demens is clearly meant to be Ronald August, who admitted to killing Aubrey Pollard. With Krauss, though, there are bigger adjustments to allow the creation of a clear, instigating big bad; lining up his opening comments on the riots, then his brash shotgunning of a fleeing victim, and ultimately giving him the most active part in all of the Algiers horrors creates one man with more onus in the tragedy than official accounts suggest.
This element of the film has come under fire for its perceived implication of “white guilt“. It could be argued that in making a clearly evil individual the focus of the horrors, it exonerates the police of guilt for the rest of the escalated riot. This is perhaps best highlighted by the “who could have done this?” line by a white cop surveying the carnage.
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