Detroit

detroit-rev Detroit  (2017)    Annapurna Distribution/Drama    RT: 143 minutes    Rated R (strong violence, pervasive language)    Director: Kathryn Bigelow    Screenplay: Mark Boal    Music: James Newton Howard    Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd    Release date: August 4, 2017 (US, wide expansion)    Cast: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie, Nathan Davis Jr., Peyton “Alex” Smith, Malcolm David Kelly, Joseph David-Jones, Laz Alonso, Ephraim Sykes, Leon Thomas III, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Chalk, Jeremy Strong.

Rating:fullstar1fullstar1fullstar1star-empty1

 A movie like Detroit couldn’t be timelier considering what’s been happening in our country these past few years. Police killings have sparked massive riots in Ferguson, Baltimore and Charlotte. It gives one pause to ask what’s really changed in the past 50 years since the summer of 1967 when a riot lasting several days rocked the city of Detroit. It was an all-out war between the police and black people angry over racially-motivated mistreatment by the law. Our society has come so far in many ways which makes it sad to see mistakes of the past repeated in the present. What was it Santayana said about not remembering the past?

 DetroitDirected by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), Detroit takes us back to a time when the Civil Rights Act was still new and not everybody was with the changing times. In the course of three years, huge riots sparked by police brutality broke out in Harlem, Philadelphia, Watts and Newark, NJ. In July of ’67, police raided an illegal after-hours nightclub and arrested the patrons in full view of neighborhood residents who responded by throwing rocks and bottles at police after which they began looting stores. It quickly escalated into one of the most violent uprisings in the late 20th century. It went on for several days. State police and the National Guard came to assist. A citywide curfew was established. Everybody was on edge. An incident like the one at the Algiers Motel was inevitable.

 Detroit mainly focuses on the horrific incident that took place at the motel in the early hours of July 25. Nearby Guardsmen and security officer Melvin Dismukes (Boyega, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) heard shots coming from that direction and assumed it was a sniper. Local police responded by shooting first and asking questions later. Over the next few hours, they beat and intimidated the guests who they had lined up facing the wall. In the end, three people were killed and the others physically and/or psychologically injured. Among them are then-Dramatics lead singer Larry Reed (Smith), group hype-guy Fred (Latimore, Sleight), a Vietnam War vet (Mackie, The Hurt Locker) and a couple of free-wheeling white girls (Murray and Dever).

 The perpetrators of the violence in the motel are Detroit police officers Krauss (Poulter, The Maze Runner) and Demens (Reynor, Sing Street). Earlier, we see Krauss shoot an unarmed looter in the back as he attempts to flee. He’s an incredible racist just looking for any excuse to kill black people. It’s bad enough that the cops killed people. That state troopers and soldiers looked the other way and let it happen is unconscionable. In the midst of it is Melvin playing the part of peacemaker. That he ended up on trial with the bigoted cops is a grave injustice. This is where Detroit hits somewhat of a snag.

 A few years ago, I remember sitting in the theater shaking with anger after watching Fruitvale Station. That’s the one about the murder of Oscar Grant (an African-American) by a white policeman. I rarely react so strongly to a movie which is why I remember it. I actually had to sit for a few minutes before I calmed down enough to leave. I didn’t react as strongly to Detroit. Yes, what went down at the Algiers was (and still is) horrific. If Bigelow’s movie is an accurate depiction of the events, those cops should have gone to jail. I should have been seething with anger but I wasn’t. I was more appalled than anything else especially when the cops come close to sexually assaulting the two young girls at the scene. There’s no doubt that some will be angered by Detroit (especially those affected by recent similar events) but for me, it didn’t provoke as strong an emotional response as I hoped.

 The rest of Detroit is just fine for the most part. It’s a very compelling film especially if you don’t know about the riots and Algiers incident. I like that Bigelow starts things off with a history lesson about black people migrating to cities and how conditions deteriorated as whites flocked to the suburbs. It gives context to the events that take place. You understand the reasons black people were angry. You see why urban neighborhoods were powder kegs just waiting to explode. The acting is also quite good. Boyega turns in solid work as the wary peacekeeper hated by his people (who think he’s an Uncle Tom) and quietly condescending white folks. Poulter is sufficiently detestable as the ringleader cop who doesn’t even try to hide his racist ideals. Newcomer Smith is heartbreaking as the singer who loses his groove as a result of his encounter with the cops at the motel.

 My only other complaint about Detroit is that it condenses the subsequent investigation and trial of the guilty parties (and not guilty party). I would have liked to know more about that. It’s never made clear exactly why Melvin is on trial with the cops. Okay, so Detroit isn’t a perfect movie. It is a good one though. It’s interesting and while it may be a bit overlong, it’s never boring. If it was a history paper, I’d give it a solid B.

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