We need rules. If we loved each other perfectly, we’d have no use for laws and courts and prisons. But our better angels are tethered to unseemly demons of greed and lust, rage and fear.
And so from the time of Moses and Hammurabi, we’ve followed laws to help keep us in line. We’ve created systems to protect the weak and innocent, to punish and reform the guilty and curb society’s worst inclinations. Laws are love encoded.
But what happens when love and law collide? What happens when people we’ve chosen to guard and guide those laws betray the love behind them? What happens when society’s strictures make us worse, not better?
I thought about this while watching Detroit, Director Kathryn Bigelow’s sad, scathing look at the events surrounding the 1967 Algiers Motel incident.
It’s a very good movie, if difficult to watch. I can’t say that I enjoyed it, exactly, but I’m glad I saw it. And frankly, I think the world might be a better place if more people did.
Detroit’s real-life underpinnings, such as they are, are simple enough to unpack: On the third day of a five-day-long riot in Detroit, gunshots—or what were thought to be gunshots—were heard coming from an annex at the Algiers Motel. Law enforcement stormed in. Before the evening was over, three black teens were dead. Those accused of killing them—white Detroit police officers—were later acquitted in an obvious miscarriage of justice. Detroit may be pinned to an event that happened 50 years ago, but in the wake of Ferguson and seething protests and #BlackLivesMatter, it feels on the bleeding edge.
Detroit plays out as a terrible, tragic Rube Goldberg machine—how one bad decision feeds into the next bad decision, and then the next. We see how reason can be, and often is, overwhelmed by fear and rage. And how sometimes, in the end, no answer of man’s can help. We need to lean on a higher understanding.
Let’s unpack how laws and men fell short in Detroit through four of the film’s primary characters … and the hint of hope the film offers in the end.