“Detroit” Movie Review


     In yet another example from a long list of ugly episodes in American history, director Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” takes us directly to the front lines of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion, a firestorm of violence, looting, and public disorder amidst racial tension between a nearly all white Detroit police force and the residents of several crowded black neighborhoods.  The set up includes introductions of some of the main players on both sides, but ultimately Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal utilize one of what I have to imagine were many incidents in order to give the audience a glimpse into just how deep these wounds go and perhaps answer why it is we deal with the same issues today fifty years later.  The situation in question is known as the Algiers Motel Incident, which sparked a national outrage and became a watershed moment in the ongoing debate over police brutality.

      The ending of “Detroit” alerts you to the fact the filmmakers know there are a lot of holes in their re-enactment of the incident.  Multiple witnesses testimony was discredited on the stand and the law enforcement officers involved had their confessions thrown out after investigators failed to advise them of their Miranda Rights during interrogation.  This means that Bigelow proceeded in similar fashion to Oliver Stone and his conspiracy film “JFK” in which a lot of what we see on screen is based on a combination of known fact as well as probability, but in no way can be considered definitive.  But the bones of the story are certainly intact, as several innocent people were murdered the night of July 25th, 1967 and the cause of those deaths simply cannot be denied.

     Bigelow fills the first act with a series of set up sequences that will ultimately lead us to the film’s grueling centerpiece.  An early police raid in an African American neighborhood sets the stage for what’s to come, as police make entry into an after hours club hosting a party for returning Vietnam veterans and have been tipped off that the organizers were conducting their business without a liquor license.  The plan was to file the club’s occupants out the back door which leads to a deserted ally, but those assigned to the rear are unable to get the door open, forcing the police to parade the dozens of arrestees out front.  Those on the street during a busy summer night begin to inch closer to the budding unrest, with many of them now throwing rocks and bottles at the police.  The police vans make it out with their prisoners, but the crowd left behind continues to violently demonstrate their disagreement with the arrests and begin burning down buildings, looting stores, and effectively turning downtown Detroit into a war zone.

     The politicians of both the city and the state of Michigan order the police force to protect fire fighters as they attempt to control blaze after blaze, but no one wanted direct engagement with the rioters, leaving them to tear their neighborhood’s apart.  Amongst this chaos, we are introduced to Krauss (Will Poulter), a young Detroit Police Officer who is patrolling the streets and enforcing the curfew imposed by the city’s Mayor.  When he and his partner come across a young man who had just looted a grocery store, they give chase on foot.  For no apparent reason, as the man posed no threat to the Officers, Krauss fires his shot gun and hits the man in  his back.  The man gets away, but later bleeds out.  When a detective calls Krauss in to question him about the shooting, his matter of fact and emotionless attitude towards what happened is alarming, and even more so when the detective tells him he is recommending murder charges, but then proceeds to send him back on duty.  As it turns out, that was a big mistake.

    By this time, we’ve met several minor characters who converge on the night of July 25th at the Algiers Motel, a small hotel located downtown in a predominantly African American neighborhood that was seen at the time by police as a haven for narcotics and prostitution.  Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) are staying at the motel and meet Larry (Algee Smith) and Fred (Jacob Latimore) when they arrive to take cover from the riots.  Julie and Karen lead the pair to an upstairs room located in the motel’s annex where they meet up with several other tenants.  When one of the occupants of the room pulls out a starter pistol and fires it out the window and towards a group of National Guard soldiers guarding a building across the street, the sounds are mistaken for actual gunfire and a call goes out to police saying there is sniper fire coming from the motel.

     Now it should be noted, both police and fire fighters had received actual sniper fire on numerous occasions during the riots, so one can imagine the intensity level any such response to a sniper call would create for all involved.  Once the situation is deemed under control by the responding officers and soldiers, the group of occupants in the annex are gathered in the lobby area where they are questioned.  Of course given the racist tendencies of the police officers involved, the situation quickly gets out of hand when no one is willing to admit the presence of a gun.  Krauss, who earlier in the day had already shot and killed an unarmed suspect, is the first responder to the motel, along with his partners Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor).  They always say when you hire from the human race, there is bound to be bad apples in the bunch and these three guys are some of the worst you will ever see depicted in a film.  Their hatred literally sweats from their pores as they repeatedly butt stroke innocent people in the head, beat them within an inch of their lives, and play an over the top deadly version of “good cop, bad cop” in an effort to get information. During the incident, three men lost their lives who may not have even committed a crime, much less done anything to threaten the police that night.

     The proceedings even manage to leave room for a do good security guard, Dismukes (John Boyega), to be fiendishly roped into the mess the three police officers created.  Since this a story based on true events, Bigelow also takes through the aftermath that includes the murder trials for the three officers which of course lead to acquittals for each of them.  The film stalls a bit here, especially after the sheer intensity of the middle act, and in some ways you have to figure centering the film on the Algiers incident may be a bit short sighted when you consider how complex the entire riots actually were.  But the craft behind the film is impeccable, and Boal’s script puts forth a gritty energy that Bigelow, who knows how to create this kind of visual flair having directed “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”, is more than capable of matching with a combination of documentary style handheld camera work and action filled wide angle compositions that pack an astounding punch.

     “Detroit” is exactly the kind of film we may hear about again come awards season, but it isn’t a story you will feel good about after viewing.  There are no punches pulled and no question is left as to how each character in the film feels about the issues surrounding race relations in 1960s Detroit.  No one performance stands out, but “Detroit” is very likely to be recognized as an ensemble, as each actor seems to fit together with the other as if they are one piece of a bigger whole.  And yet, no one will forget Poulter’s work here, particularly during the Algiers incident in which he exudes the kind of evil normally reserved for horror films.  Anthony Mackie’s performance as a recently returned two tour Vietnam veteran named Greene is equally as powerful, as we realize what this country had waiting for him coming home from what he most certainly thought was a living hell, only to find himself in an arguably worse scenario.

     Based on testimony and known facts, no one would argue that the Algiers Motel incident is an example of police brutality which should not only never be forgotten, but should also be learned from in order to prevent situations like this from continuing to happen.  And that goes for both sides of the equation.  It’s not incredibly difficult to create a scene and point a camera at it that will cause an audience to feel sorry for those on screen, but there are certainly choices being made as to which stories are produced, as well as the timing of these productions.  Perhaps I may suggest Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal should next tackle a film about Micah Xavier Johnson and his cowardly shooting of five Dallas Police Officers on July 7, 2016.  An act in which he stated he wanted to kill white people and succeeded when those he shot were on duty protecting people exercising their right to free speech in a Black Lives Matter protest.  Shouldn’t those who lost their parents, brothers, sisters, and friends that night have their stories told as well?  Would Johnson, a black man, be portrayed every bit as much of a racist as Poulter’s white character Krauss?  Food for thought.  GRADE: B+