A film review by Craig J. Koban August 13, 2017

DETROIT jjj
 

2017, R, 143 mins.

 

John Boyega as Dismukes  /  Will Poulter as Krauss  /  Algee Smith as Larry  /  Jacob Latimore as Fred  /  Jason Mitchell as Carl  /  Hannah Murray as Julie  /  Jack Reynor as Demens  /  Kaitlyn Dever as Karen  /  Ben O'Toole as Flynn  /  Anthony Mackie as Greene

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow  /  Written by Mark Boal

DETROIT is the new period crime drama from director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mike Boal, the same tandem behind the 2008 Oscar winning film THE HURT LOCKER as well as their follow-up effort, 2012's ZERO DARK THIRTY.  Both of those films - two of the very best of their respective decades - were pulse poundingly thrilling historical narratives that dealt with deeply polarizing military conflicts.  

DETROIT once again displays Bigelow at the absolute confident zenith of her directorial craft in focusing on one of the most brutal race riots of that city's history in late July of 1967, during which time 43 people died and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage occurred.  In many respects, DETROIT rounds off Bigelow's war trilogy in the sense that it too deals with life on the battlefield, albeit of a different breed: one that occurred on home soil and pitted American versus American in heated conflicts of rampant bigoted hatred. 

Actually, the title of this film - arguably its one nagging weak point - is a bit of a misnomer; DETROIT is not ostensibly about the city, nor is it concerned with being a thorough overview of the five day riots.  It's more ostensibly focused on a particularly shameful incident that occurred during the riots, the so-called Algiers Motel Incident, which was located a mile east of where the riots began.  It was at this motel where three black civilians were brutally killed by local police, with nine other people - two white females and seven black men - were beaten and humiliated by the Detroit police, the Michigan State Police, the National Guard, and one private security guard.  Two of the three deaths were caused by "justifiable self defense and homicide," but later charges of murder, civil rights abuses, and conspiracy were levied at three of the officers and the security guard,  whom all were found not guilty after a lengthy trial. 

 

 

DETROIT gives viewers - during one swift and artfully rendered opening animation sequence - a backdrop of what led to this bloody and depraved night of racial injustice, after which time Bigelow wastes very little expositional time in thrusting us right into the beginnings of the riots themselves.  It's July 23, 1967 and the Detroit PD are staging a raid on an unlicensed club during a celebration of returning black war vets.  Very quickly and alarmingly, an angry mob forms that morphs into full scale civil riot over the city, which led to then Governor George W. Romney declaring a state of emergency.  Considering the volatility of the relationship between blacks and whites at the time and the perceived mistreatment by the largely white officers during this raid, Detroit was a ticking time bomb of violent unrest that only added fuel to the already out of control fire. 

As the riots begin to spiral out of control the story begins to zero in on a group of characters that would eventually all convene at the Algiers Motels:  There's an aspiring singer (Algee Smith) and his partner (Jacob Mackie); a war vet (Anthony Mackie); and a couple of morally loose white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) that are just looking to have a good time.  As the mixed race occupants of the motel begin to mingle and party, one loose cannoned resident (Jason Mitchell) decides that it would be a hilarious prank to pull out his starter pistol and shoot at patrolling officers outside.  Unfortunately, the city police and National Guard perceive this as hostile sniper fire, which leads to them infiltrating the motel and rounding up everyone.  Two of the officers are textbook hot-headed racists, Krauss (Will Poulter) and Demens (Jack Reynor), whom are accompanied by a few members of the National Guard as well as an overtime working security guard (John Boyega).  What culminates next is one of the most excruciatingly tense middle sections of a film that I can ever recall as the belligerent and trigger happy cops resort to frequent beatings and armed interrogation to find out who the sniper is...which is complicated by the fact that there wasn't really one, per se, to begin with. 

Mike Boal's script follows the historical record of what transpired that fateful and damaging night at the Algiers Motel, despite the fact that key details have been disputed to this very day.  DETROIT aims for historical verisimilitude through and through, but uses some understandable artistic license to create a meaningful and dramatic whole.  Where Boal's script succeeds is in the manner that he adeptly segues between multiple characters and multiple events during the night in question while making viewers feel that they have a grasp of the larger riots erupting around these lost souls.  Where his script falls a bit short is in the sense that it takes awhile before DETROIT manages to get to the sections involving the Algiers Motel Incident, which somewhat hurts the film's overall pacing (at 145 minutes, the film is a tad too bloated for its own good considering that it's not essentially a broad based portrayal of the city spanning riots themselves).  

Yet, make no mistake about it, the real standout of DETROIT is its director, and Bigelow once again cements herself here as one of the most technically proficient filmmakers in terms of crafting sequences of startling veracity and nervous intensity.  Much akin to what Christopher Nolan did to slightly less effective results in DUNKIRK, Bigelow wants to us to feel like intimate eyewitnesses to the horrors of a small scale incident happening within the backdrop of a larger one, and the sense of stark documentary-like immediacy that she brings to portraying the horrors of this dark day in American history are sensationally effective.  Using a combination of archival news footage and a free-wheeling cinema verite camera technique, Bigelow triumphantly captures the breathless and chaotic urgency of the riots with impressionistic editorial flourishes and searing handheld cinematography that grippingly makes you feel like you've been instantly transported to the past.  When the film finally begins to generate some serious momentum and cements us in that motel and the unpardonable social horrors that occur in it, DETROIT becomes one of 2017's most uncompromisingly harrowing cinematic experiences. 

The film becomes mercilessly unnerving during these sections as we bare witness to endless scenes of police brutality and the sadistic means that these officers employ to justify their interrogation.  Using violence and the non-stop threat of cold blooded murder, Poulter's and Reynor's cops become some of the most morally bankrupt and repugnant villains to grace the silver screen in some time (Poulter in particular is positively chilling as his ultra racist beat cop without a conscience to speak of).  These scenes are almost unbearable to endure, but they're crucial to underscoring the central themes of DETROIT of undisciplined and unlawful men of the law abusing their relative power to abuse and terrorize people that they have sworn to protect.  If anything, the film is really about the absolute worst impulses of venomously evil men and how they feel justified in using their intolerance of others as a rallying call to arms.   

One of the more compellingly rendered characters caught amidst all of this is Boyega's security guard, who's clearly a pitiful victim of being in the wrong place and the wrong time.  Witnessing the savage hate crimes being perpetrated by the Detroit PD, Melvin ironically becomes embroiled in hostile attacks by his own people who feel that he's gone all "Uncle Tom" for working with law enforcement while dealing with prejudiced members of the National Guard that don't quite take him seriously.  Boyega gives arguably the most soulful performance in DETROIT in the sense that he crafts a commanding presence in the film with just body language and his eyes.  Rather thanklessly, he has to convey a whirlwind of conflicted emotions throughout the film without saying anything.   

I only wished that DETROIT were a tighter and leaner film.  Its opening sections are sporadically paced and the film's final 30 or so minutes tries to somewhat awkwardly shoehorn in the aftermath of the riots and the subsequent trial of the officers; Bigelow and Boal struggle to find a manner of bringing the piece to meaningful closure.  Yet, DETROIT is still a gripping piece of fact-based cinema that packs an unmistakable gut punching wallop.  It not only casts a shameful light on one of the most distressing events in 20th Century American history, but it also manages to be sobering and topical to contemporary eyes in how it draws meaningful parallels to wretched stories of modern police brutality and the continued racial divide that permeates the country.  The timing of this film couldn't be any better, seeing as DETROIT is being released on the 50th anniversary of the Algiers Motel Incident.  In many tragically ironic ways - especially if one looks at many headlines from today - the level of monstrous police aggression that went unchecked and often unpunished in the past hasn't completely changed all that much in the present.  That's ultimately what makes DETROIT so undeniably engrossing and profoundly frightening.

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