DETROIT (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong violence and pervasive language)
Released:  July 28, 2017 limited; August 4 everywhere
Runtime: 143 minutes
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Hannah Murray, Jason Mitchell, Ben O’Toole, Jack Reynor, Kaitlyn Dever, Anthony Mackie

Ever since her 2008 Oscar-winning Iraq war film The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow has made politically topical films with one key distinction: she’s stripped away the politics. Her movies certainly provoke debate but, as seen in the response to her Bin Laden manhunt Zero Dark Thirty, her politically agnostic approach can rile up as many detractors as defenders.

Bigelow’s methodology – indeed, her specific filmmaking voice formed with regular screenplay collaborator Mark Boal – is to take you inside the experiences that everyone else is arguing about, and does so through intimate portraits within those experiences (not conservative or liberal didacticism). The final result ends up making each venture more of a Rorschach test than a soapbox.

That’s not to say her films don’t have a point of view, they do, but mostly to the extent that the events themselves have them. Beyond that, Bigelow and Boal leave it to us to hash out what it all means.

I respect that, appreciate it, and wish more filmmakers would take that same tact (especially those who don’t but actually think that they do). Even so, despite an obvious intent to effect change and give voice to forgotten victims, the latest Bigelow/Boal joint could stand to use a bit more perspective than it has.

Detroit – a visceral, at times gut-churning dramatization of police brutality set fifty years ago during a week of racially-charged riots in Michigan’s biggest city – cuts so close to the bone with current events in our country that the emotional response it ignites cries out for some level of credible wisdom or insight. It elicits a yearning for something tangible that would help us grapple with what we’ve just endured, because it resonates with what’s still being endured today.

In the summer of 1967, Detroit police conducted a raid on an unlicensed after-hours bar frequented by minorities. The action, seen as a targeted attack on Detroit’s African-American community, sparked a week of protests, violence, and looting, and served like a prophetic omen to the summer of unrest that would explode one year later following the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

These Detroit riots escalated to a peak with the Algiers Motel Incident, a brutally tragic confrontation perpetrated by racist police officers. That incident serves as the central fulcrum to Bigelow’s film.

The first hour lays groundwork for what will go down at the Algiers, partially from a broad view but mostly in tracking three specific stories of unrelated people whose lives will eventually collide at the motel on that ill-fated night. There’s the racist cops, an African-American security guard who bears witness to the Algiers terror, and a talented R&B hopeful who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time with his close friend and two young white women they’d just met.

Before these three narratives converge, Detroit feels a bit disjointed, like it needs more of a focus. Truth be told it does, but when it finally all comes together at the Algiers the focus hits like a reckoning, and the investment that we in everyone involved validates the first hour that required a bit of our patience.

As we descend into the circle of hell that the Algiers Incident became, Bigelow drags us through it in protracted detail. What at first may appear as melodramatic license becomes viscerally convincing when you see where it all leads to. The seemingly caricatured Detroit cop spearheading the psychological and physical torture suddenly becomes credible, and the crippling terror of the innocents who get caught in a horror not of their making becomes searingly authentic.

Bigelow further substantiates the veracity of her portrayal by intercutting archival footage into various scenes, with the real and the staged matching seamlessly. The cast, too, makes solid work of rough material, especially John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and relative newcomer Algee Smith.

Boyega humanizes the role of the helpless African-American security guard that fails to stop what unfolds, particularly in how Boyega establishes the man as a mediator who seeks to calm racial tensions, not light them. This virtue that served him well until it became a naiveté for a moment he wasn’t prepared for. Smith’s R&B singer becomes the film’s soul (in a movie profoundly in need of one), but that soul is left more scarred than triumphant. It’s a career-making performance from Smith that could garner some Oscar traction as well.

I’m not sure if we’re enlightened by anything new at the end of all of this, but it creates a deeper empathy for the paradigm inherent to the African-American community today and how it came to be, whether you agree with some of the political expressions that have arisen from that paradigm or not.

Detroit doesn’t provide solutions; it strictly holds up a mirror to a rather grim reality. That makes for a really tough sit, especially as it parallels similar injustices seen today. That it offers no answers, commentary, or a broader historical context doesn’t make the film irresponsible (as some have argued), but it does leave us feeling hopeless.

Still, I can’t assign fault to Bigelow and Boal for that. The fault is in us.

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