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Friday, August 04, 2017

Detroit

In July 1967, the city of Detroit was gripped by one of the deadliest riots in American history.  Called "The 12th Street Riot", it stemmed mostly from the brutality of a largely white police force toward the African American community.  When the riots had ended after five days, 43 people were dead, and millions in property damage was reported.  In the middle of the riots, a tense situation occurred within the Algiers Motel, where police intensely interrogated a group of young people, leading to three deaths, and an eventual trial that gripped the nation.

Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit takes a look at the events leading up to the riots, and the courtroom drama that it eventually inspired.  But it's main focus comes during the lengthy mid-section of the film, where we see a detailed yet admittedly dramatized (there is a disclaimer included at the end which states some license had been taken) of what presumably occurred within the Algiers Motel.  This sequence is easily as terrifying and as gripping as anything Bigelow has done, even reaching the levels to her best film so far, 2009's The Hurt Locker.  The only thing somewhat holding it back from greatness is the somewhat disorganized script by Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty), which at times jumps around the narrative a bit too freely, and doesn't have a strong central character we can get behind.  I understand the film is trying to look at this situation from multiple angles, but at times, it seemed a bit haphazard in its approach.

None of this, however, takes away the intensity of the film's entire middle section, which is set within the Algiers Motel.  When law enforcement groups (local cops, a security officer, and national guard) believe they are being fired upon from the motel’s vicinity, they raid the place. Not long after, one person is dead and nine others – seven black men and two white women – are being terrorized by three racist cops (played by Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, and Ben O’Toole). When physical intimidation fails to get the cops the information they want (the name of the gunman), they begin a psychological "game" that goes horribly wrong.  Detroit is unflinching in its depiction of cruelty and racism, making it hard to watch at times.  What makes it all the more emotionally devastating is that while we know we are watching an ugly moment in history, it eerily brings to mind recent events as well.  This is a story that could have happened at any point in recent history, and it would seem sadly plausible.

The movie's scope is large, as it tries to look at this situation from multiple viewpoints.  If there is one person who could be considered a "main character", it would be a wannabe Motown singer named Cleveland Larry Reed (Algee Smith).  He and a close friend (Jacob Latimore) find themselves at the motel after Reed's big break at possible stardom is canceled by the riots going on outside.  There they meet two white women Juli Hysell (Hannah Murray) and Karen Malloy (Kaitlyn Dever), who will later find themselves persecuted by the cops just for the fact that they were with black men.  There is also a Vietnam Vet (Anthony Mackie), home on leave, who gets involved.  Also on hand is black security officer Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who does his best to try to rationalize the cruelty he is seeing by his fellow law enforcers, but finds it harder and harder during the course of the film.

Detroit creates an eerily plausible scenario of what happened in the motel, largely using research and eyewitness reports.  Again, parts have been dramatized, but the events up on the screen never seem melodramatic or overly staged.  However, this honesty and intensity of covering the middle section of the film does lead to one of its flaws, which is the courtroom scenes that come afterward are nowhere near as thrilling or as hard-hitting.  Regardless, this is a haunting movie.  If Bigelow's intention was to create a film that stays with the viewer long after the movie ends, she has succeeded fully.  There are images and scenes here that I will not likely forget anytime soon.  This will obviously be a polarizing movie with its audience, but I don't think anyone can deny that there are images here that will last in your mind.

The power of the film comes not from its historical accuracy, but from its accuracy of human nature and society.  Sadly, the events depicted are still happening, and most likely with more frequency than we would like to believe.  This movie is not just a powerful time capsule, but also a potent commentary on race relations, and how little sadly has changed over time.  It may not be a perfect film, but it is one that is impossible to forget.

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