Film Review: Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow’s latest nerve-scraper is another journalistic war film, only this time set not in the Middle East but the race-riot-shattered streets of America, circa 1967.
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Who would have thought that Kathryn Bigelow, after a career cracking out artful tension machines like Near Dark and Zero Dark Thirty, had such an affinity for music onscreen? In Detroit, Bigelow ably deploys her knack for crisp cinematography and screw-tightening editing to deliver a nervy and timely true-crime story. Many scenes linger, like the eerie shots of National Guardsmen traversing smoke-clouded streets with bayonet-fixed rifles held high like the spears of Roman centurions. But what truly sticks are the moments that pause on a song’s keening beauty, whether it’s a roomful of guys arguing about John Coltrane or a Motown group thrilling a concert hall. There’s a transcendence then which deepens the tragedy of what follows.

Set in the chaos of the 1967 Detroit riots, Mark Boal’s screenplay dramatizes and expands on a little-remembered episode of police brutality that crystalizes the violence of a country wrenching itself apart. In that crucible, Krauss (Will Poulter), a casually sadistic police officer who earlier in the riot shotgunned a man for running with looted groceries, ringleads a bloody interrogation whose methods fulfill all the worst fears of black Detroit residents.

Like most events of its kind, the riots didn’t kick off in necessarily logical fashion. The run-of-the-mill police raid on an unlicensed bar, a tightly executed mini-movie of its own that starts things off, goes south after an angry crowd gathers. Rocks are thrown and billy clubs brandished. Soon, despite the protestations of young Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso) that “change is coming” and “this is your home,” black rioters are looting and burning in a Gotterdammerung of rage. Interspersing reenactments with news footage, the movie quickly sets the scene for urban warfare. Soldiers flood the streets and civilians are torn between survival and joining up with what feels to some less a riot and more outright rebellion against institutional racism.

The second act is set in a relatively quiet part of the city, the annex of the Algiers Motel, which becomes a crossfire zone. Thinking they were being shot at by snipers, white police and Guardsmen converge on the Algiers and bust up several summer’s evening parties. They discover a target for all their bottled-up fear and resentment: several black men, including a soldier just back from Vietnam (Anthony Mackie) hanging out with a couple of young white women, and the singer for The Dramatics, Larry (an Oscar-worthy Algee Smith), whose big-break concert was just canceled due to the rioting. What happens then is an American horror story about powerlessness and dehumanization, further darkened with racial score-settling and overtones of sexual violence, that echoes from My Lai to Abu Ghraib and police stations and prisons beyond count.

Poulter’s Krauss, an invented character, orchestrates much of this segment’s more harrowing elements, including taking men into adjoining rooms and pretending to shoot them dead (calling back to a similar scene earlier). But he never becomes a too-convenient villain. Poulter’s chillingly stoic performance makes clear that Krauss thinks he’s doing the right and smart thing. Boal, who pieced together his script from archival research and numerous interviews, makes sure to note how many opportunities Krauss’ fellow abusers had to stop what was happening. The state police see things spinning out of control and leave. A Guardsman helps one prisoner escape. But no hero emerges to snap Krauss and his fellow torturers out of their savage state before they have a body count on their hands.

Unlike Bigelow’s best work, Detroit can’t follow up this tightly interlocking chain of gripping scenes with a worthy final act. Several characters are left dangling, particularly the security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega, pulling off a minor Denzel here with thin material), stuck trying to protect the prisoners without being seen to do so by the increasingly paranoid and trigger-prone police. By the time the movie huffs into the concluding murder trial, whose baggy construction starkly contrasts with the tightly wound preceding scenes, it’s clear that Boal and Bigelow have bitten off a little more than they could chew.

Some of Detroit’s more left-field elements don’t quite pull together, like the short animated history of the Great Migration and white flight which awkwardly begins the movie. But in many ways the further it gets from the story’s white-hot core, the more resonant it becomes. The events at the Algiers Motel and in the streets outside in July 1967 are one reason Boal and Bigelow made this movie, and they are reason enough. But the story also matters because of elegantly captured moments like when Larry serenades one of the white women, Julie (Hannah Murray). He sings both as a flirt and a man who knows he might just have missed his one shot at stardom, Smith’s powerful voice burnishing his character’s wounded pride.

The damage inflicted in the motel that night doesn’t register in the movie’s trial, but in the look that Larry shoots later to the white man he sees at the studio where The Dramatics are recording. The fear in Larry’s eyes at that second, and the way his voice drains away to nothing, say more than anything else in this imperfect but unmissable American drama about the enduring trauma of racial violence, and the beauty that it kills.

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