Review: Detroit

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Just last week, the President of the United States stood before a large gathering of law enforcement officers and made some none too subtle remarks encouraging police brutality. It seems the present still has much to learn from the past. While this country still strives for a more perfect union, it must do so by acknowledging the deep wounds of the decades and centuries prior. As racial tensions remain a major facet of life in America, it’s worth looking back as how history repeats itself. In the 1960s, Detroit was as racially inflamed a city as any in the country. As riots escalated, African Americans often found themselves in the hands of law enforcement, often for committing no wrongdoing. A major moment in the Detroit race riots came in 1967 at the Algiers Hotel, as depicted in Kathryn Bigelow’s new film. While searingly depicted in Bigelow’s confident docudrama style, the situation is played more for the polarities between right and wrong, and perhaps less for the moral ambiguities that simmer beneath the surface.

The incident at the Algiers Hotel resulted in the deaths of three African American men and is depicted in the film from three crucial points of view. The first comes from Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a talented singer and part of the up and coming group The Dramatics, who ends up at the hotel after a canceled performance. Will Poulter plays Detroit police officer Philip Krauss, whose thinly veiled racism reaches its boiling point that night. The third perspective comes from Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a local security guard who finds himself caught in the mayhem and tension, torn by moral choices. Detroit provides some background on each man from slices of their day to day lives, but their paths cross that night when gunshots are heard coming from the hotel. Police and national guardsmen surround the building, and in the ensuing chaos a man is killed. Completely sure that a weapon is hidden among the hotel patrons, Krauss begins resorting to violent and terrifying tactics. Though totally innocent, Reed is both helpless and horrified, while Dismukes is unwittingly put in an impossible position, in which he must both assist the reckless cops, and protect those who are blameless.

For a film that parallels the present in startling ways, Detroit has a wealth of setup before arriving at the pivotal central event at the Algiers. The film opens with an animated sequence portraying the conditions that fostered discrimination in the 1960s, but it belabors the point a bit much. Much more effective is the film’s first live action scene, in which dozens are arrested at an underground club, inciting rioting and violence from those passing by. Bigelow’s immediacy and on the fly staging of the scene and subsequent riots gives the film a vital veracity of emotion. This tension is brought to its most wrenching levels in the Algiers Hotel, a sequence that seems to last for at least an hour. While the film makes clear the lines between moral and immoral, the quandaries in between aren’t fully explored. There’s no mistaking the despicable acts that the police commit, nor the sheer terror of those being needlessly antagonized and assaulted. The aftermath of the event ripples major aftershocks out to all those involved, but it’s the eyes of Boyega’s Dismukes that carry the most resonance. An anchor of decency throughout, Dismukes is suddenly thrown into a tempest of emotion in the third act, simply by having been present at the Algiers Hotel that night. We’re never sure what, if any, kind of resolution he found, but perhaps that’s the point. After bearing witness to such horror, is it ever possible for solace to arrive?

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~ by romancinema on July 31, 2017.

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