Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
The idea behind radical social change is a topic that has been in the plot devices of modern history bio-pics for ages. You enter the film with a mentality that there probably isn’t going to be a happy ending, especially if you already know the outcome. Kathryn Bigelow said it best “I hope this movie starts a dialogue”
That shouldn’t be an issue.
Her latest Oscar darling, “Detroit” is a powerful, moving, intensely gripping thriller that highlights what was, at the time, the seventh largest city in the country. The film tackles the subject matter of the 1967 riots that shocked that world and the backdrop to an evening that left three young men dead.
With other timely, and deeply afflicting war films on her resume like “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow steps into a different war zone with longtime screenplay collaborator Mark Boal (who is sure to secure another Oscar nomination). The film does a tough job of being able to showcase all the events which surrounded the motor city through this time, and then focusing on the tragic events which unfolded at the Algiers Motel when white police officers on patrol harassed a group of young black men and two white girls. Leaving three dead in their path. Now, as a disclaimer, this film isn’t some propaganda movement for Black Lives Matters, or saying every police officer is racist. The whole reason “Detroit,” as a film, is so well rounded because it takes all perspectives into consideration to help tell the story. And the message is one that resonances and echoes through time, Bigelow is simply highlighting on the injustices, and harassment buy a select few police officers who thought they were above the law.
The film opens with a harrowing sequence that gives us clues into the oppression of Detroit and neglect the city faced. We get an animation that dubiously throws us in the middle of the chaos. What was known then and now as “the 12th raid” a group of police officers bust open into the second floor of a printing company called “The Blind Pig” The cops do have the right to shut the party down, but the problem is what stems from their unmitigated anger. They treat the black patrons like cattle being wrestled into a herd, threatening them with violence, then throw them out the front door for the world to see. We hear a man shout to the officers “What did they do?” a line that seems to define history. And than their outrage erupts to a boiling point where nothing could be done.
Store windows get smashed. Molotov cocktails start flying. More windows become smashed leaving local businesses prone to looting. Rocks even get hurtled towards fireman. The next scene cuts to the middle of the day where first congressmen John Conyers (Laz Alonso) is trying to keep the peace, he is standing on the top of a car with a megaphone, an image that Bigelow sheers into our brains. All he is alluding to is that “change is coming,” but, you almost are waiting for the angry protestors to say “yeah sure.”
Meanwhile, there are other jagged scenes that set the pace for this drama. We get all eyes on a group of white police officers out on patrol, supposedly “keeping the city safe” or the main antagonists of the story, Krauss (Will Poulter), Demenes (Jack Reynor), and Flynn (Ben O’Toole) whose means of enforcing the law require them to shoot, at point blank range, suspects they are chasing on foot. When they get reprimanded for their actions and find out they could be facing murder charges they get a slap on the wrist and go right back on duty.
The film shifting character dynamic that meets us up with Dismukes (John Boyega) a patrolmen himself, and local security guard that works long hours of the day and night. We don’t know much about him, but he is a black authority figure so that immediately makes him a target. His role in everything is less of he is a bad guy, he is just trying to be a mediator for everything in between. He even brings coffee to the National Guard troops - (which, by day three, have found sanctuary with their tanks and artillery the size of Texas) - as a sign of good faith.
And then finally our plot catches up down the road where a Motown inspired group called The Dynamics are getting ready to debut at The Fox Theater - they are a group with sprawling talent and Algee Smith is likely to walk away with a Best Supporting Actor nod playing the legendary Larry Cleveland and his vocal chops even more so. Him and his buddy Fred (Jacob Latimore) decide to hit the town and stay at a local annex down the road, once their show gets shut down due to protesting, where they catch eyes on some young women, and get a fun role play from 17 year old Carl (Jason Mitchell) about the likes of police brutality in Detroit. In an effort to teach the law a “lesson” Carl stupidly fires his “gun” in the streets as to scare law enforcement officials. The gun itself was a starter pistol filled with blanks.
It’s not long before our officers, whom we’ve already seen shoot someone, arrive on the scene and start thrashing everyone in the building. They line them up one by one and throw em against the wall desperate to find out who was causing all the trouble. This is where “Detroit” becomes increasingly tough to watch, and dives headfirst into the crux of the story. Dismukes even wanders in on the event at hand, and stands by idol, knowing that if he did try to interfere his life could be in jeopardy and even then…
The cops abuse, torture, and play a deadly game of interrogation tactics. They even go as far to take people into nearby rooms shut the door, fire a bullet into the ground as to give the impression to the others they just killed someone. Meanwhile the others are outside begging for their life and some even praying. It’s brutal and the vapid performance by Poulter only makes these scenes that much scarier.
There is a testament to the powerful filmmaking standards on display here, with the cinematographer and production design team doing a flawless job at creating a vintage 1960s style Detroit. One has to ask what the performers needed to do in order to find that place in their head and they all do exceptional work. As someone who still lives in Michigan and feels that the motor city is an important part of our state's heritage, the idea of opening up a dark past in our history could have proven fatal. After all, it’s showcasing this for the entire world to see, and as the tagline suggests “It’s time we knew” - that is where the truth lies.
I think the natives of Michigan have nothing to worry about, the story has been handled with great respect and honor to the fallen victims in the Algiers motel. We all should be proud. This is one of the best movies 2017 has to offer. A