Bigelow's 'Detroit' depicts real-life horror tale of racism, abuse of power

  • A Vietnam vet (Anthony Mackie) who has moved to Detroit looking for work becomes one of several motel residents abused and interrogated by cops in Kathryn Bigelow's fact-based drama "Detroit."

    A Vietnam vet (Anthony Mackie) who has moved to Detroit looking for work becomes one of several motel residents abused and interrogated by cops in Kathryn Bigelow's fact-based drama "Detroit."

 
 
Posted7/26/2017 11:45 AM

Kathryn Bigelow's tough docudrama "Detroit" begins as a frightening, authentic re-creation of the Motor City's 1967 race riots, then roller-coasters into scenes of claustrophobic brutality more akin to a home-invasion horror tale -- and just as deep.

Although gut-wrenching and conscience-searing, "Detroit" marks the least complex collaboration between Bigelow and journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal.

 

They previously teamed up on "The Hurt Locker" (2008), using a thriller format to explore the addictive allure of war. Their "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012) had less to do with the search for Osama bin Laden than how a woman of superior intellect and intuition maneuvered the male-shark-infested waters of the American military.

In "Detroit," Bigelow and Boal deliver a blunt, unvarnished account of how Detroit's white-dominated police force continually overreacted to the events of July 1967, culminating in the deaths of black citizens at the hands of racist cops never brought to true justice.

On July 23, Detroit police raided an illegal drinking party in a black neighborhood, triggering a wave of anger, looting and violence.

By the time the National Guard stepped in, Detroit already resembled the firebombed rubble of a dystopian society gone mad.

A young, would-be singing star named Larry Reed (Algee Smith) becomes our de facto sympathetic main character. He hopes his appearance with The Dramatics at a local theater following Martha and the Vandellas will net them a recording contract.

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The riots force the theater to evacuate, crushing Larry's dreams. He and a pal named Fred (Jacob Latimore) duck into the Algiers Motel, a dive where visiting white teenagers Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) are on a rebellious lark with a black guy, Carl (Jason Mitchell). Also at the Algiers is a Vietnam veteran (Anthony Mackie) who came to Detroit seeking work.

In Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit," Will Poulter, left, plays a racist cop who subjects a Vietnam vet (Anthony Mackie) to abusive interrogation techniques.
In Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit," Will Poulter, left, plays a racist cop who subjects a Vietnam vet (Anthony Mackie) to abusive interrogation techniques. -

The on-edge cops, thinking they've been fired upon from the Algiers, descend upon the motel to look for a gunman.

White officer Philip Krauss ("The Revenant" star Will Poulter, a portrait of racist intolerance) rounds up the white girls and black guests in a narrow hallway.

Krauss devises a sadistic ruse to find the gun. He orders the detainees be taken into a room, one at a time, and "executed" until someone talks.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Black security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), whose presence is barely tolerated by the cops, remains a reluctant, powerless witness to the tragedy that follows.

Boal's screenplay -- based on witness accounts, court records, military documents and news reports -- makes no attempt to shoehorn this story into a cathartic Hollywood formula, although its claims of accuracy are undermined by Krauss, a fictional "composite" of several aggressive cops at the Algiers.

(The legal reasons for this are obvious, given that the real officers were not convicted of criminal conduct.)

A 1967 police raid on an illegal party led to riots depicted in Kathryn Bigelow's fact-based drama "Detroit."
A 1967 police raid on an illegal party led to riots depicted in Kathryn Bigelow's fact-based drama "Detroit." -

Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd cannily utilizes a handheld camera to visualize the instability of 1967 Detroit (although this movie was mostly filmed in less-expensive Boston).

Ackroyd's camera captures a harrowing tale made all the more disturbing by its horror-film treatment, and by its sobering admission that the American ideals of justice and fairness could be heady illusions.

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