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Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Detroit


Detroit

Months before its release, we marked Detroit as a must see on our calendars, a true chapter from the violent peak of the 1960s Civil Rights movement.  Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), working with writer and frequent collaborator Mark Boal, zeroed in on an incident at the Algiers Hotel one night in 1967 and brought all of her skills to bear to deliver her specialty--a powerful and immersive experience.  So much so that there were reports of scores of theater attendees walking out of the film as anger emanated from both African-American and White factions at her depiction of riots and police brutality.  Forewarned, we headed out with our intrepid band, and it can be reported first-hand that one among us did walk out, another later said he almost left, and those remaining averted our eyes on several occasions.  (Guy S. Malone, Researcher, as usual, was banished to another row for masticating his Jujyfruits so loudly it sounded like the Scottish Grenadiers slogging through a peat bog.  But we digress.)

Bigelow opens with a written intro superimposed over painted panels, describing the migration of Blacks and Whites in America and concluding with a lesson in urban geography.  Those few moments are the last peaceful ones as we cut to July 23, 1967, and a police raid of an illegal after-hours club in a Black neighborhood that is already restive.  As the police take party-goers outside, the streets go from simmer to boil.  Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd goes street-level as the scene escalates to looting, Molotov cocktails, and violence.  City and State Police try to take control, and by the time the National Guard arrives, what has become known as the 12th Street Riot is on.

Meanwhile, at a nearby Motown revue, an aspiring soul group, the Dramatics, await the opportunity that could finally bring them recognition; before they can perform, though, the violence outside forces the theater to evacuate.   Lead singer, Larry (Algee Smith), and his best friend, Fred (Jacob Latimore), decide to hole up in a dive motel, The Algiers.   There, they meet two suburban girls, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), flirting with the sexual revolution.  The girls take them to a party third-floor party where Vietnam Air Cavalry veteran Greene (Anthony Mackie) quietly stands by as the roisterous Carl (Jason Mitchell) and Aubrey (Nathan Davis, Jr.) carry on.  As one of the words practical jokes ever, Carl shoots a starter pistol, a fateful event.  Down below, police and National Guard dive for cover, thinking there is a sniper.  Caught on the street with them is Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard for one of the local stores.  Soon, an assault is mobilized, and as the third-floor partiers are overwhelmed by massive force.

All of the foregoing is setup and prologue for the events that follow as a trio of city police--Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O'Toole), and Demens (Jack Reynor) take charge of, if not responsibility for, interrogating the suspects on-site.  Led by Krauss, events become increasingly violent and sadistic, prompting other officers to vacate the scene and leaving Dismukes as the rational observer of events.  Those disputed events lead to an investigation and an equally disputed trial, highlighting a third act that is as rushed as the interrogation scenes are grimly dragged out.  That is when John Krasinski shows up as the police defense attorney, representing a Machiavellian system of law that follows an Inquisitional system of order and remains a blot on America's record of race relations to this day.

With a runtime of 2:23, the Algiers Hotel incident lasted 37 minutes longer than it took for Christopher Nolan to evacuate Dunkirk.  During the interrogation scenes, it is evident that Bigelow wants the audience as much as possible to stare in the face of racist police brutality, but it is equally evident that the words "duration" and "endurance" come from the same root.  It is simply too much, as a matter of both taste and art.  We are not squeamish; to the contrary, we have gone out of our way to attend horror movies since our tender pre-adolescent years.  And although we won't go as far as those who call Detroit "violence porn," we will say that the camera dwells a bit too lasciviously on the agony and the anguish of the victims of the interrogation.  From an artistic standpoint, while it is well-composed, well-shot, and drives home the point of the entire film, it does so at the expense of the investigation, the trial, and the consequences to all involved.

Our previous remarks to this point may give the impression that the film is a failure, and that is not the case; Detroit is a good, in some ways a very good, film.  The problem is, it will probably fall just outside the nominee lists in a number of categories.  It may well make some top-ten film lists, but it's unlikely to be top-five in anything.  Few do war films better than Kathryn Bigelow, and Detroit is a domestic war film.  From the beginning through the aftermath of the interrogation, we are immersed in an action movie, shoulder to shoulder with the combatants.  But like many war movies, the characters are thinly-drawn caricatures whom we only care about because of the position they occupy as victim or perpetrator--the kid-singer with the dream, the honest best friend, the rebellious princess, the stoic observer, the strong but silent soldier, the sadistic cop, the nasty lawyer.  Make no mistake, the performances are uniformly good to excellent; they just aren't nuanced.  And in the case of potential acting nominations, the producers bet on the wrong horse: It seems that many people are desperate to make John Boyega happen; in fact, an EW critic drooled, "It's a pleasure just to watch him think."  Really?  They should have pushed all of their chips behind Will Poulter, the British actor with the perfect American accent.  He seems cast against type, with his Alfred E. Newman face, but even in repose he conveys menace, and when he feels the suspects are withholding information, the brutal racist oozes from every pore.  He is the best bet for an acting award.  For others, see below.
8.0 out of 10 on the Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (Outside shot at nominations for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Supporting Actor, maybe Sound Editing)

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