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In Theaters: DETROIT (2017)

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DETROIT
(US - 2017)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal. Cast: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, John Krasinski, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O'Toole, Nathan Davis Jr, Peyton Alex Smith, Malcolm David Kelley, Joseph David-Jones, Laz Alonso, Austin Hebert, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Coy, Miguel Pimentel, Chris Chalk, Glenn Fitzgerald, Dennis Staroselsky, Darren Goldstein, Jeremy Strong, Gbenga Akkinagbe. (R, 143 mins)

A harrowing chronicle of the 12th Street Riots in Detroit in late July 1967, with a focus on the infamous "Algiers Motel Incident," DETROIT is the latest from the HURT LOCKER and ZERO DARK THIRTY team of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal. It's pretty powerful--unflinching and disturbing, and difficult to watch at times. As a dramatization, it takes some liberties, changes a few names, and condenses some incidents for time and storytelling purposes, but according to those who were there who were either interviewed by Bigelow and Boal or, in the case of Juli Hysell, who was 18 years old at the time (played in the film by Hannah Murray), on the set as a consultant, it largely sticks with the events of the night, if not the aftermath. DETROIT's themes and imagery resonate today with seemingly endless police shootings of frequently unarmed suspects by inevitably acquitted cops and the resulting protests by groups like Black Lives Matter. Things haven't changed over 50 years, and while the more "woke" film cognoscenti argue, in their increasingly ludicrous pursuit of things to find offensive, that it's a film that shouldn't have been directed by a 65-year-old white woman, Academy Award-winner Bigelow again demonstrates that that she's one of the top American filmmakers going, something anyone in the know figured out back in 1987 with NEAR DARK, and one that you wish would work more frequently.






In an unusual prologue conveyed by a series of Jacob Lawrence paintings, white flight to the suburbs begins to take hold in post-WWII, leaving much of the Detroit area as segregated black neighborhoods left to decline, with increased police presence slowly ratcheting up the racial tension. That tension explodes on July 23, 1967 with a raid on a private club, without a liquor license, hosting a party for returning black Vietnam vets. The cops herd them out of the building like cattle, prodding them into paddy wagons as bystanders demand to know "What did they do?" Before long, bottles are thrown, windows are smashed, stores are looted, and a Molotov cocktail sets a gas station ablaze. Despite pleas from congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso), his constituents continue destroying their neighborhood out of a sense of frustration that's only growing. Gov. George Romney (seen in archival news footage, used frequently throughout) deploys the National Guard, the US Army, and the state police to maintain a presence in the area in a virtual martial law-like state. The riots force aspiring R&B group The Dramatics, led by frontman Larry "Cleveland" Reed (Algee Smith), to leave a gig at the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit, but they're separated after a bus is hit by bottles, with Larry and his buddy Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) venturing off on their own and ultimately checking into the nearby Algiers Motel to lay low for the night.


Larry and Fred end up partying with some people in a house on the Algiers property known as "the annex," where rooms are also rented. These people include hot-tempered Carl (Jason Mitchell, best known as Eazy-E in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON), his friend Aubrey (Nathan Davis Jr), and Vietnam vet Greene (Anthony Mackie), among others, plus 18-year-old Hysell and her friend Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two white girls from Ohio. Demonstrating what black men go through with cops on a daily basis, Carl shoots Aubrey with a blank from a tiny starter pistol, which provides a laugh for everyone. Emboldened, Carl fires more blanks out of a window in the direction of some National Guardsmen on patrol. This sends the Guard, some Army officers, and some local cops on the scene to raid the Algiers. Three Detroit P.D. patrolmen arrive and, under the leadership of bullying, racist Krauss (Will Poulter of THE REVENANT), the situation escalates into a grueling night of intimidation and torture as Krauss (who's already killed Carl and planted a knife on him to claim it was justified), Demens (Jack Reynor), and Flynn (Ben O'Toole) are set off by the sight of two white girls hanging out in a motel filled with black men and begin terrorizing everyone in search of the gun and the shooter.They play a "death game," a psychological tactic of taking someone into another room and firing a gun, tricking the others into talking, lest they be shot as well. Things get even worse from there, as Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard working at a market across the street from the Algiers, tries to maintain some semblance of order by going along to get along, respecting the cops and deferring to Krauss with the best intentions for everyone's safety even though he's horrified by what he sees and feels too outnumbered to stop it.


DETROIT's midsection is bookended by a clunky beginning and a protracted finale that turns into a standard courtroom drama not helped by the distracting late-film appearance of John Krasinski, who's still too recognizably John Krasinski to play an asshole defense attorney more concerned with putting the victims on trial (Dismukes is also charged, along with the three cops, when the story breaks and ultimately three dead bodies and several seriously injured motel residents need to be explained). But the long, agonizing Algiers sequence that makes up the biggest chunk of the film is a masterpiece of sustained, visceral tension. You'll actually feel your heart racing and your stomach knotting as things quickly spiral out of control, with Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (THE HURT LOCKER, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) creating an unbearably claustrophobic atmosphere with a lot of close-ups and a refusal to shy away from the brutality exhibited by the cops, whose power trip is abetted by the military and the state police looking the other way and leaving when they see Krauss' unhinged handling of the situation. Poulter is a big reason the Algiers section works as well as it does. Not a classically attractive leading man, the British Poulter scowls and smirks so much that he looks like an inbred Dylan Baker much of the time, vividly portraying what will probably go down as the most repugnant movie villain of 2017, and doing it so convincingly that it may actually do him more harm than good. Krauss is the kind of loathsome character that can be a typecasting career-killer for the actor who brings him to life, and Poulter (who never overdoes it, which makes it even more terrifying) is so good here that you may end up instantly despising him every time you see him in the future.


Top-billed Boyega is ostensibly the star as Dismukes, but his character arc seems like some scenes are missing, at least when it comes to the extent of his culpability in what happened. It's not really clear why he was put on trial or why Juli picks him out of a police lineup and gets him charged with the cops, beyond a knee-jerk need to pin it all on a black guy, which homicide detectives seem eager to do until too many people start telling the same story of three out-of-control cops. As presented here, Dismukes went along to get along. He was a passive observer who didn't take part in any of the violence or mayhem but felt powerless to stand up to Krauss, and may have been deemed guilty by association simply because of his security guard uniform. By the end, the emotional core of the film is Larry "Cleveland" Reed," a man with an incredible singing voice who was so traumatized by his night at the Algiers that it altered the course of his life. He walked away from a lucrative career with The Dramatics to live a quiet life in Detroit, where he leads a church choir to this day. Smith's performance is every bit as powerful as Poulter's in different ways, but despite a middle that's as brilliantly-handled as anything you'll see in a movie this year, along with convincing period detail that's right up there with ZODIAC, DETROIT falls short of greatness due to a cumbersome and unfocused start and finish that's kind of all over the place. Still a terrific film that needs to be seen, though one really must question the logic of releasing this in the summer.



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