Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Reel Review: DETROIT

In 1967 Detroit, a police raid on an unlicensed drinking hole sparked a racially charged riot which lasted five days and escalated to the point where National Guard troops were called in to help stop the damage. One of the more infamous events to happen during the looting occurred at the Algiers Motel, where two racist cops led a raid which led to the beatings and eventual death of three African-Americans. It was an ugly incident in an ugly time, and the subject matter for director Kathryn Bigelow’s DETROIT.

During the riots, a grocery store security guard (John Boyega) assists police and National Guardsmen as they respond to a shooting at the Algiers Motel.  Led by a racist cop (Will Poulter), the officers brutally interrogate the hotel guests, including a Vietnam War veteran (Anthony Mackie), a Motown singer and his manager (Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore), and two young white girls (Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray).

DETROIT is a film which fully embraces the standard three-act structure; with the first act establishing the situation and moving all the vital characters towards the motel, the second dealing with the events at Algiers, and the third portraying the aftermath and court proceedings against the police officers who went way overboard. The early goings of the film (preceded by a brilliant animated prologue) spends all of its time establishing characters and moving them around, and there is a lot to take in and keep track of as director Kathryn Bigelow, working from a script by her long-time collaborator Mark Boal, sets us up for the terror to come.

That terror is hard to watch, as the cops literally crack skulls and blast innocents with shotguns…all in the name of “justice”. The actual events that happened that night to this day are still unclear, so Bigelow and Boal take their liberties and guesses, and DETROIT presents itself as very matter-of-factly…almost to a fault. There is a strict adherence to re-enacting the events, so much that it almost forgets to be a “movie” in a traditional sense. Bigelow has done this to great effect in the past, and here it mostly works, but the ugliness of the situation forces us to look for empathy, but it doesn’t quite get there. DETROIT comes off as 90% documentary and 10% narrative, and it isn’t quite the type of cinematic experience that is meant to be enjoyed. Despite the despicable actions of the police in the motel, Bigelow still manages to show both sides of the coin; dropping us right into the boots of street cops and Guardsmen as they were under fire from looters and snipers. 

Bigelow’s pacing, editing, and dark cinematography are excellent. The tension and dread that she builds up during the motel interrogations are sky-high. The scale of the riots are re-enacted in stunning visuals, and one has to wonder exactly how she pulled it off (movie magic still exists!). Excellent use of historical footage is seamlessly edited in (which adds to the documentary feeling). James Newton Howard’s score is very good, and the usage of pop songs from the era are well chosen and placed.

Acting is very good even if we don’t get to know our characters very well. John Boyega is good as always, and his character acts as an audience-surrogate so he gets a lot of screentime. Will Poulter really dominates the film as the true villain of it all. His berating and de-humanizing of every African American he sees (along with white people who associate with them) is revolting, and he makes it believable. Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray also get a lot to do as the only two white girls in the hotel, Anthony Mackie is solid as always, Algee Smith gets to stretch his wonderful singing pipes, and John Krasinski pops in later on as a defense lawyer for the cops.

The third act of the film gets into the criminal proceedings against the cops, and it serves as a very long, extended conclusion to the film. The outrageous (and perhaps inevitable) verdicts are enough to make anyone upset, and the message of DETROIT seems to be that not much has changed since 1967, and that this could easily happen again today. DETROIT is brutally honest, and despite being emotionally distant and unconventional, is a worthwhile look at a shameful event in history.


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