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Review: DETROIT (2017) 'an explosive look at the 1967 Detroit riots from the team behind The Hurt Locker'

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Joseph Friar

By Joseph Friar
Aug. 10, 2017 at 5 a.m.



DETROIT (2017)

John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Muray, Jack Reynor, Kaitlyn Devor, Ben O’Toole, Nathan Davis Jr., Peyton Alex Smith, Malcolm David Kelley, Joseph David-Jones, Laz Alonso, Ephraim Sykes, Leon Thomas III

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow 

There have been many films about racism tied to America’s dark history.  Many, like Steve McQueen’s brutal 12 Years a Slave, are hard to watch but this is the first time that any film disturbed me to the point that I experienced many of the same symptoms associated with an anxiety attack, including overwhelming fear, a sense of helplessness, and a surge of gloom.  Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the team responsible for The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, focus on the 1967 Detroit riots for an explosive thriller that feels just as relevant as it did 50 years ago.     

The film opens with the artwork of Jacob Lawrence, a series of tempera paintings depicting the Great Migration of African Americans who left the rural South for the promise of jobs and housing in the urban North only to encounter unemployment, racism, and discrimination.  A few lines of text superimposed over the artwork provide the audience with a quick history lesson as Bigelow focuses on the direct cause of the riots rather than the preexisting conditions that fueled the fire. 

On July 23, 1967, Detroit police raided a welcome back party for two Vietnam veterans at an after-hours illegal drinking club in a black neighborhood.  Anthony Mackie is reunited with Bigelow after starring in The Hurt Locker to play one of the veterans.  The police arrested all the African American men and women in attendance causing eyewitnesses to protest by vandalizing buildings, looting stores, and starting several fires.   The situation quickly escalated as Detroit police surrounded the neighborhood but the angry residents pushed past the blockades forcing Gov. Romney to call in the National Guard and State Police.  Eventually President Johnson sent in Army troops to try and control the civil unrest which lasted for five days. 

Bigelow’s film concentrates on the The Algiers Motel incident that occurred on the third night of the riots after police and national guardsmen stormed the motel where they suspected a sniper was taking shots at them.  There was no sniper and the shots heard came from a starter pistol fired by 17-year old Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) during a party on the third floor of the building.  Police opened fire and moved in and when they couldn’t find a rifle the occupants were lined up in a hallway with their hands on the wall, the beginning of a nightmarish ordeal that left three black teenagers dead after they were beaten and shot by the Detroit police and nine others brutally assaulted including two white women who were stripped and humiliated by the officers who became enraged when they suspected the women were sleeping with the black men.  

“Detroit” turns into an ugly, harrowing, display of cruelty and racism as Bigelow refuses to step back behind the line that most filmmakers dare not cross.  Will Poulter (The Revenant) is the epitome of evil as the 24-year old English actor plays the sadistic Officer Krauss who is seen earlier in the film shooting an unarmed black man in the back who was running from the police after looting a grocery store.  Krauss is the ringleader who directs the other police officers (Ben O’Toole and Jack Reynor) to do the unthinkable in what resembles a home invasion horror film.   The tension is riveting, at times unbearable, as Bigelow effectively puts the audience in the room with the helpless victims.  The entire interrogation scene only lasts 40 minutes but it feels like hours as time slows to a crawl.  It’s very effective in that the audience gets a sense of what these young men and women must have felt during the grueling ordeal.  

In 1968 author John Hersey wrote a book called “The Algiers Motel Incident” which was compiled by interviewing survivors, victim’s families, and forensic reports to provide a comprehensive account of the events that took place that fateful evening. Bigelow and Boal could not secure rights to the novel so the duo conducted their own investigation while researching the film.  The eyewitness accounts of Melvin Dismukes (Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ John Boyega), a security guard who desperately tried to diffuse the situation by acting as a mediator, Julie Hysell (Hannah Murray from Game of Thrones), one of the women stripped and beaten by the police, and Larry Reed (newcomer Algee Smith), a vocalist with the group The Dramatics, provided Bigelow and Boal with an outline of what happened in the motel.  This is their story and the trio were heavily involved in the production of the film.  

There is some humanity in Detroit, a glimmer of hope here and there, but the amounts are not significant enough to balance out the horrors witnessed on the screen.  Some critics see this as the film’s weakness while I believe this gives the film it’s strength.  The performances by the cast are fantastic especially Poulter and Smith who represent good vs evil.  Poulter found it tough playing such a ferocious character and several times during filming he broke down in tears and had to take a step back to regain his composure.  Newcomer Algee Smith is perhaps the film’s silver lining.  His performance as Larry Reed is first-rate and Smith has a voice that sounds like it was heaven sent.  Smith teamed up with the real-life Larry Reed for a rendition of the song “Grow” available on the “Detroit” soundtrack.  After the incident at the Algiers, Reed never returned to perform with The Dramatics who are still on the road touring today.  

While the film’s standout performances are accredited to the talented cast, Bigelow played a significant role in drawing out those performances.  Most of “Detroit” was filmed in sequence to make it more realistic for the actors.  The open sets provided room for the cast to move around and experiment with their roles plus many of the actors were in the dark about the future of their characters as Bigelow revealed bits of information a little at a time to evoke more realistic performances from her cast.       

Bigelow received the most acclaim in 2008 when she became the first female director to win an Oscar for The Hurt Locker (which also won Best Picture) and her follow up, Zero Dark Thirty, was nominated for Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards but “Detroit” has more in common with one of Bigelow’s earlier films, 1995’s “Strange Days” which was inspired by the 1992 L.A. riots and also features racism, corrupt police officers, and chaos as the backdrop to a musical group’s performance.  

“Detroit” may be too much to bear for some moviegoers who were expecting a more balanced film.  It’s a dark story that needed to be told and Bigelow should receive praise for putting it out there.  There is a ray of hope in the film that comes in the form of Algee Smith’s performance as Larry Reed.  A scene towards the end of the film where Reed auditions to be the choir director of a small church is beautiful and calming.   It’s a pivotal moment that delivers a message of hope.  Reed, a survivor, was deeply affected by his experience at the Algiers but the evil he encountered did not break him.  His soul remained intact and the goodness within shines through in the form of Smith’s divine singing. 

(4 stars) 

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