‘Detroit’ Fact Check: What Really Happened at the Algiers Motel?

Testimony from the officers’ trials backs up Kathryn Bigelow’s interpretation

Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” will undoubtedly be a conversation starter as it hits theaters this weekend — with its take on a violent night at a Motor City motel. But how much of the film is actually true?

In the first feature distributed by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna, the “Hurt Locker” director trains her eye on the 1967 Detroit riots through the lens of an incident in the annex of the Algiers Motel, a popular hangout spot in the middle of the riot zone where three young black men were found shot dead — and one of those deaths was never explained.

The film places the blame for the three dead citizens on an openly racist group of Detroit policemen, who are introduced to viewers after one shoots an unarmed black teen who is running away. The film doesn’t use the officers’ real names, but it doesn’t take much digging to figure out who they are intended to be.

A group, including those Detroit policemen, and a handful of National Guardsmen, raided the motel after reports of snipers came in to authorities. Several witnesses attributed the reports to the fact that one of the teens, Carl Cooper, had fired a starter pistol in his hotel room. No starter pistol — or gun of any kind — was found at the Algiers, according to numerous contemporary newspaper reports.
Cooper was the first to be killed that night, with his body found in a first-floor room (even though he had been staying in the third floor.) The movie depicts him getting shot during the initial flurry when law enforcement entered the building, and being on the ground floor as he was scared and trying to run to a safer place. In a federal conspiracy trial after the incident, the defense claimed Cooper was killed by other guests, which was rejected by two of the motel’s occupants. Cooper’s death was never explained.

After taking control of the Algiers, the officers, led by ringleader Robert Paille, lined up the captured youths, beat them and held a “death game,” peeling them off one by one and pretending to shoot the teen guests in another bedroom to coerce others into confessing, according to the testimony of three state troopers at the murder trial of Ronald August, one of the officers involved.

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August admitted to killing the second teen to die at the Algiers, Aubrey Pollard, during that trial — but he claimed it was because Pollard reached for his shotgun. Guardsman Ted Thomas disagreed, attributing Pollard’s death to August’s participation in the “death game,” testifying that Detroit policeman David Senak asked him if he wanted to “shoot one,” after which he took one of the youths into a room and fired at the ceiling. Thomas testified that Senak made the same offer to August, after which he escorted Pollard into a different room and heard no conversation or sign of struggle before a shot was fired and Pollard’s body dropped. Thomas told the officers “this is police business,” before leaving the scene, according to his testimony. Pollard’s killing is depicted in the film exactly as that testimony claims.

In “Detroit,” Temple is the last of the three to be killed, gunned down by Paille after choosing not to lie about seeing Pollard’s dead body on the floor right in front of him. That interpretation is based on several witnesses testifying that Temple was still alive when they were allowed to leave the motel. Paille later testified it was self-defense after a struggle over his gun during the officers’ conspiracy trial, and a state trooper testified that he heard scuffling noises and gunshots coming from the room.

John Hersey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Hiroshima,” published his own investigation in 1968, whose notoriety was one reason the officers’ trials were moved out of Motor City. “Detroit” did not use the book as source material, however, as Hersey had promised his subjects it would never be turned into a movie — and the book isn’t mentioned at all in the movie, even though it covers the trials in detail.

One other thing that hasn’t changed in the 50 years since the Algiers incident: None of the officers involved were convicted of any crimes.