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Detroit the Movie: The Algiers Motel Story and PTSD


Detroit the Movie: The Algiers Motel Story and PTSD

Kathryn Bigelow and Megan Ellison

Marie Y. Lemelle, MBA | Contributing Writer

Entertainment Industry Giants Kathryn Bigelow and Megan Ellison are the epitome of a Hustle Mama.  Bigelow, an award-winning director and first woman to win the Director’s Guild of America Award for directing a feature film, and three-time Oscar-nominated Film Producer Ellison, the founder of Annapurna Pictures as the distributor for Bigelow’s “Detroit” feature film teamed up for a second time (first project, “Zero Dark Thirty”) to ensure the tragic story about the 1967 Detroit riots would be told in a graphic and no-holds bar way on its 50th Anniversary.

Kathryn Bigelow and Megan Ellison team up to tell the untold story about the horrific 5-day 1967 Detroit riots in the feature film, “Detroit.” Photo credit: Infidea Studios

When a woman tells an intense story, you will probably hear about people and events that may make you feel uncomfortable.  Award-winning Director and Trailblazer Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty” and “Hurt Locker”) is known for tackling difficult topics.  Bieglow’s feature film “Detroit” may prove to be one of her most controversial projects.

The true story about the 1967 riots in Detroit was not widely known outside of Michigan. The acting is superb and most likely will leave you numb from the brutality and terror suffered by a group of young black men and two white girls caught in the web of hatred and bigotry of a handful of white law enforcement at the Algiers Motel.

MYXJ_20170801192253_save (2)Detroit cast members Jacob Latimore (Fred), Algee Smith (Larry), and Joseph David-Jones (Morris) first learned about the 1967 riots while filming.  The true story opened their eyes about police brutality and a largely untold historic event.  Photo by Marie Y. Lemelle.

“Detroit” stars include John Boyega (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), Anthony Mackie as Greene (“Captain America: Civil War” and “The Hurt Locker”), Algee Smith as Larry (“The New Edition Story”), Joseph David-Jones as Morris (“Nashville”),  Jason Mitchell as Carl Cooper (“Straight Outta Compton”), Jacob Latimore as Fred (“The Maze Runner”),  Peyton “Alex” Smith as Lee (“The Quad”), Nathan Davis Jr. as Aubrey (“Glee”), Tyler James Williams as Leon (“Dear White People” and “Everybody Hates Chris”), Ben O’Toole as Flynn (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Kaitlyn Dever as Karen, Hannah Murray as Julie, and Laz Alonso as John Conyers (“Avatar” and “Fast and Furious”), and many others.

July 23, 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the untold story of racism that never made the history books and talked about on late night television.  The five-day civil unrest left 43 dead, 33 were black and 10 were white.  The majority of the 7,200 people arrested were black.

Detroit takes the audience on an intense ride that never lets up.  Emotions for many movie goers ran high.  “The movie shows racism and violence by white police officers who terrorized young black men,” said Judge Craig Strong, a Detroit native.  “The film will make you mad at the police and the judicial system.”  Judge Strong was a college student in Detroit at the time of the riots.  “We had a curfew but held vigilance from our porches to protect the storefronts we patronized. Along with my classmates and my Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. line brothers, we looked out for trucks with Ohio plates that drove in the city to ransack our community businesses.”

Looting and arson was occurring throughout the city.  Nearly 8,000 Michigan Army National Guardsmen, 4,700 paratroopers from both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, and 360 Michigan State Police officers had been dispatched to bring law and order to the city.

“I remember soldiers pointing guns at us and instilling fear,” said Strong who has served on the bench for 38 years in Detroit.  “I went to law school at Harvard in Washington, DC, and returned to Detroit to carry out justice.”  The incident inspired many of the Detroiters to become police officers, lawyers and judges to bring positive change to the city.  “At that time, we believed that if it can happen to those young men, it could happen to us.”

The records shows that the Detroit police officers and National Guardsmen shot 24 blacks; store owners or security guards shot 6 people; one was electrocuted by a downed power line; and two died by asphyxiation from a building fire.

It was a dark time for Detroit and has opened up painful memories especially for those who are native of Detroit, Michigan.

“Detroit’s chief of police is encouraging the police force to watch Detroit for teachable lessons,” said Strong.

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The majority of the Detroit cast members were not born when the riots took place.  Laz Alonso as John Conyers, Ben O’Toole as Flynn and Tyler James Williams as Leon talked about the brilliance of Kathryn Bigelow’s directing. Photo: Marie Y. Lemelle

“I just turned 5 years old on Saturday July 22, 1967,” said Limuel Flowers, a native of Detroit.  “My memories of the riot that started in the early morning hours of Sunday July 23, 1967 are vivid because “Johnnie’s Records” a small record shop owned and operated by my dad Johnnie Flowers at 3940 Fenkell was broken into and looted.”

The Flowers family lost everything and the memory of that for Flowers was devastating.  “On the news we saw our shot in shambles and my mother exclaiming in shock and horror, “JESUS, HAVE MERCY,” said Flowers.  Lim’s dad with the family drove to the record shop on Monday, July 24 to survey the damage.  “Every store on the block robbed and looted.”

Flowers’ brother R. Barri Flowers was ten at the time of the riots.  “I remembered seeing the windows of my dad’s shop smashed and the interior empty,” he said.  “It was a very sad day and really unnerved me. I can only imagine what might have happened had my Dad came face-to-face with those seeking to steal his hard-earned inventory and destroy his property.”

“I learned what it meant to be black in a racist America,” said Lim Flowers.

Racism and terrorism led to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for many of the Detroiters and those caught in the crossfire.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PTSD is categorized as an intense physical and emotional response to thoughts and reminders of the event that last for many weeks, months or years after the traumatic event.  PTSD symptoms include: panic attacks, depression, suicidal thought and feelings, drug abuse, feelings of being estranged and isolated, and not being able to complete daily tasks.


According to the Psychological Care & Healing Center, experiences that frequently result in emotional trauma include sexual abuse, rape, incest, child abuse, domestic violence, battering, combat experience, exposure to natural disasters or accidents, bullying, torture, entrapment, criminal violence, and profound personal loss.  Emotional or verbal abuse, or witnessing of abuse of another person, can also produce psychological trauma. Source: Psychological Care & Healing Center Medical professionals state that PTSD falls into three broad types: re-living, avoidance and increased arousal.

  • Re-living include flashbacks, nightmares, and extreme emotional and physical reactions to reminders of the event. Emotional reactions can include feeling guilty, extreme fear of harm, and numbing of emotions. Physical reactions can include uncontrollable shaking, chills or heart palpitations, and tension headaches.
  • Avoidance includes staying away from activities, places, thoughts, or feelings related to the trauma or feeling detached or estranged from others.
  • Increased arousal includes being overly alert or easily startled, difficulty sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, and lack of concentration.

Miyume McKinley,  a licensed psychotherapist, says, “There is a misunderstanding about PTSD – it can be based on individual experiences from 9/11 news,Hurricane Katrina, police brutality and the actual events of the civil unrest, riots and the aftermath of traumatic episodes, not just a military incident.

McKinley states that she has treated several clients who were hypervigilent about their sons when they saw someone in a police uniform, heard a siren, or are followed by a police car.  “PTSD can negatively impact their ability to do simple tasks and normal activities or follow their dreams,” she said. “PTSD  impacts the spirit, soul, mind, emotions, memories, and the body,” said Dr. Douglas Cowan, Psy.D., MFT.

“I grew up in Detroit and was  fortunate that my father Cary Cayce told me first-hand events and stories about the 1967 riots,” said Marc Cayce, a Detroiter who is now living in Hollywood, CA. “  My mother’s wedding ring was in one of the Detroit pawn shops that was looted and burned down on 12th street. My father went to the pawn shop and was told by the owners that all items were either looted or burned and there would be no replacements.”

Kathryn Bigelow and Megan Ellison

Detroiters Filmmaker Marc Cayce and Wayne County Circuit Court Criminal Division Judge Craig Strong attended the Detroit movie premiere at the 5,000-plus-capacity Fox Theater in Detroit, Michigan. Courtesy Photo.

“There were numerous clashes from the  predominantly white Detroit Police Department,” said Cayce. “White officers were recruited from some of the harshes Jim Crow southern states like Mississippi and Alabama to control the blacks in Detroit who had this new freedom of good paying jobs from Ford, Chrysler and General Motors.”

“My father said it was well  known and documented that white cops used to drive around the city looking for groups of young black men to beat down for just being Black. Unfortunately, my father was one of them who was beaten,” said Cayce.  “The motion picture “Detroit” does not reveal how or why the  tensions builds up in the black community and exploded in 1967.  The heartbeat of Detroit was the music scene, which was on fire straight out of Motown from the Supremes to  Martha Reeves, Mary Wells Smokey Robinson to name a few were on top of the charts.”

Ironically, one of the number one songs of 1967 was  Aretha Franklin’s “ R.E.S.P.E.C.T!.”  The movie does give a backstory about the music group, “The Dramatics.”  The lead singer Larry Cleveland Reed played by Algee Smith left the group after he endured hours of brutality and terrorism by the Detroit police officers. It appeared he suffered from a number of PTSD symptoms and avoided the very music he loved the most.  Prior to his run-in with the Detroit police officers, Reed and his singing group were the follow-up act to Martha and the Vandellas on the stage of the famous Fox Theater.

He never pursued his R&B singing career until recently.  He recorded a single with Smith, a rendition of “Grow” heard on the Detroit soundtrack.

“We hear PTSD mentioned most often in regards to the military, but anyone who has suffered a major trauma can be impacted – rape, brutality, sudden death, a major loss, seeing something horrific and many other incidents,” said Anne-Marie Lockmyer, a Grief and Loss Specialist.  “The results can be the same – you have been traumatized and that trauma needs to be addressed.  Your brain has been impacted.”

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Jason Mitchell as Carl Cooper (“Straight Outta Compton”), Nathan Davis Jr. as Aubrey (“Glee”), and Leon Thomas as Darryl (“Web of Spies”) are more vigilant about social injustices since the filming of Detroit. Bigelow personally called Mitchell to offer him the role of Carl.  Photo: Marie Y. Lemelle

“Brutality of any kind can be traumatic.  Fabricated accusations would be especially traumatic as what is happening would make no sense to the person,” said Lockmyer.  “Their sense of security is destroyed.  It does not make rational sense.  Even if the accusations are proven false, the effects of the trauma can remain and need to be addressed or dealt with.”

“The riots happened 50 years ago, but unfortunately history continues to repeat itself and there are still too many incidents of police brutality and racial injustices that must be exposed and eradicated,” said Strong who witnesses the effects of PTSD on a regular basis in his courtroom.  “The city of Detroit has a black police chief and a diverse police force.  The movie depicts a dark time in Detroit’s history but we are going through a rebirth of prosperity.”

The movie is produced and distributed by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, which is named after a section of the Himalayas in Nepal.  Ellison is one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Detroit opened in theaters nationwide on Friday, August 4, 2017.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – www.cdc.gov

Anne-Marie Lockmyer – www.comfortforthehurting.com

Detroit – www.detroit.movie/

Douglas Cowan, Psy.D. – www.douglascowan.me

National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – www.ncptsd.org/

Psychological Care & Healing Center – www.pchtreatment.com

Marie Y. Lemelle, MBA, a public relations consultant, is the owner of Platinum Star PR and can be reached on Twitter @PlatinumStar or Instagram @PlatinumStarPR.