Mark Reviews Movies

Detroit

DETROIT

4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Cast: Algee Smith, John Boyega, Will Poulter, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Jack Reynor, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben O'Toole, Anthony Mackie, John Krasinski, Nathan Davis Jr., Peyton "Alex" Smith, Malcolm David Kelley, Joseph David-Jones, Laz Alonso, Ephraim Sykes, Leon Thomas III, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Chalk

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence and pervasive langauge)

Running Time: 2:23

Release Date: 7/28/17 (limited); 8/4/17 (wide)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 27, 2017

The story begins with the start of—depending on one's perspective—the riot, the uprising, or the rebellion. It must, in a way, because that's what we expect. The violence and looting started after a police raid on an unlicensed night club on the West Side of the city of Detroit. At a private party there, some people are celebrating—drinking, playing games, welcoming home a pair of soldiers from Vietnam.

That's it. The only thing that makes this particular party worthy of police scrutiny is the fact that everyone in this club is black. It's 1967, and that's the way things were then. The police break down the door to the club. Nobody thinks much of it. The partiers comply with orders, with only a few yelling about their rights. They know not to make this unspoken something into something unspeakably worse.

The officer in charge, an African-American cop, pulls a man into a side room. That man turns out to be an informant. The person whom the cops were looking for isn't at the club, but this has started. It has to end. The cop and the guy put on a sound show for the partygoers—to make it appear as if this is a cop who's willing to beat anyone who doesn't follow his orders. It works. Everyone leaves out the front door and waits for the paddy wagons to bring them to jail. What else can they do?

A crowd begins to assemble and protest. Soon enough, a bottle is thrown. Just as the cops are preparing to drive away from the scene, the number of bottles and rocks increase. Someone breaks a lock off the gate to a store, and someone else starts to smash the store's window. This kind of activity and more would continue for five days. Forty-three people would be killed—the plurality of them civilians. The Michigan Army National Guard and a pair of divisions of the U.S. Army would bring jeeps, tanks, and an arsenal of military weaponry to the streets of what was, at the time, the fifth most populous city in the United States.

This sequence begins the narrative of Detroit, a tense, thoughtful, and uncompromising film by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. The film itself begins by reminding us that the prelude to the events of Detroit in 1967 began well before this. There was the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural south to the rest of the country during the First World War. There was the exodus of whites to the suburbs following World War II. Against the backdrop of oil paintings depicting these events, the prologue concludes by noting that wealth and opportunity shifted away from black communities, where the only white people left were the police who patrolled the streets.

The film is not an act of journalism, although its dramatized narrative of events, according to the film's coda, is based on the best available testimony of people involved. It's not an act of activism, either, although the film's outrage about the abuse of power of the local police and the intentionally blind eyes of the state police, as well as the armed forces, is palpable.

What's fascinating is how Boal's screenplay starts with the riot, with Bigelow intercutting archival footage and news reports to lead us through the first three days. A politician with a bullhorn addresses some protestors, openly wondering why this is happening. From there, the script answers that question. The film's depiction of one event, in which a series of crimes were perpetrated and left unhindered by various members of law enforcement and the military, reveals the systemic corruption and racism that led to the outburst of decades of suspicion against, fear of, and anger about a system that has failed African-Americans.

At first, the film's narrative tapestry is wide, but it progressively narrows in focus as an assortment of characters are brought together in the annex of a motel just outside the perimeter of where the rioting is occurring. Those characters include Larry (Algee Smith), the talented lead singer of an aspiring doo-wop group, whose appearance on the stage of the Fox Theatre is canceled when the police evacuate the building, as well as the young singing group's equally young assistant Fred (Jacob Latimore).

There's also Melvin (John Boyega), who works for a security company at nights after his shift at an automotive factory is finished. One of the stores for which the company handles security wants some guards at the shop. He greets the incoming National Guard with a smile and pot of coffee, just so they know he's on their side.

At the Algiers Motel, where Larry and Fred stay to get out of the chaos, are Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two young, white women visiting from Ohio to get away from their families. A Vietnam veteran named Greene (Anthony Mackie) is staying there, too.

Someone at the motel has a starter pistol, and his idea of putting some fear into the National Guard brings a slew of law enforcement and military personnel to the annex. Among their lot is a trio of Detroit cops—Krauss (Will Poulter), Demens (Jack Raynor), and Flynn (Ben O'Toole)—whose first appearance has them discussing how they've failed the African-American community. Krauss' idea of what the cops should do to "help" is displayed when he shoots a man carrying bags of groceries in the back.

The film's centerpiece is a seemingly real-time recreation of what happened on the night of July 25, 1967 at the Algiers Motel. It's a story of torture—physical attacks and psychological abuse that includes mock executions—and, ultimately, murder. All of it is perpetrated by police officers who are too dumb to understand what the "game" is and too blinded by racism to see that they're doing anything wrong. Most of all, they're too comfortable within their positions of authority to believe that there will be any consequences. This is especially true when all of the witnesses whom this system would believe are either in agreement with what's happening or too scared of the political repercussions to stop it. It's a sequence that's nerve-wracking in Bigelow's use of tight close-ups and harrowing in its depiction of cold-eyed, amused, and, eventually, desperate evil.

Boal's screenplay continues to constrict its focus after these crimes—what officially has become known as an "incident." In its later sections, Detroit confronts the fallout from a legal standpoint and from personal ones. Victims' families come into the picture, never moving past the shock of hearing what has happened. A survivor's life was only interrupted by the rioting. The actions of these police officers nearly destroy it. An investigation proceeds, and a trial begins two years later. In the context of continuing abuses of power and authority, all of it becomes a harsh reminder that, even though we may learn from the past, we still seem doomed to repeat it.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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