Friday, August 4, 2017

Detroit: City in flames

Detroit (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong violence, dramatic intensity, pervasive profanity and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.4.17

Very few dramatic films — as distinguished from documentaries — have left me feeling nauseous, in response to the monstrous behavior of human beings.

Schindler’s List is one; that was a quarter-century ago.

Racist cop Philip Krauss (Will Poulter, center left) gleefully takes charge of the lit-fuse
"interrogation" of half a dozen wholly innocent Algiers Motel residents, using the greater
Detroit riot as an excuse to terrorize and torture them.
Detroit is the most recent; that was a few nights ago.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal both took home well-deserved Academy Awards for 2009’s The Hurt Locker; they re-teamed for 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, their equally mesmerizing portrayal of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, which concluded with his death during a Navy SEAL raid in May 2011.

The latter film lost some of its luster — and probably a few Oscars — due to political sniping over the accuracy of the CIA’s depicted use of torture (an accusation that still seems specious, given that relevant documents remain classified). That controversy tainted a film that deserves better recognition both as a nail-biting drama, and for having gotten “the important stuff” right.

Bigelow and Boal may run into the same problem with Detroit, which would be an even greater tragedy. Although their riveting new film shines a necessary spotlight on a grievously under-remembered tragedy in American history — the so-called 12th Street Riot, which consumed Detroit, Mich., from July 23-27, 1967 — Boal’s script suffers somewhat from tunnel vision, differs at times from long-established eyewitness accounts, and in one conspicuous case succumbs to flat-out speculation.

We experienced this problem with 2000’s The Perfect Storm, which detailed the real-world fate of the fishing vessel Andrea Gail, lost at sea during the nor’easter that developed in late October 1991. The paradox was obvious: Since everybody on board died, nobody could possibly know what actually happened during the boat’s final hours. That didn’t diminish the film’s impact, but one had to acknowledge the contrivance of its entire third act.

Bigelow and Boal obviously are aware of the liberties taken here, and concerned enough to conclude their film with a text block that acknowledges “necessary” extrapolation.

I hope that’s good enough, because it would be awful if Detroit were caught up in petty arguments over detail, thereby obscuring the incontrovertible, big-picture degree to which clearly innocent, mostly black civilians were brutalized by blatantly racist, thuggish white cops during a particularly ghastly incident triggered during the riot.

Bigelow’s film has the immediacy of a documentary: a we-are-there verisimilitude enhanced by blended archival newsreel footage and the deliberate graininess of Barry Ackroyd’s street-level cinematography. Our unease is immediate, and Bigelow doesn’t waste any time, before confirming our worst fears.

There are no credits; after a fleeting prologue that explains the century’s worth of racial discrimination that turned Detroit into a simmering powder keg — presented akin to a children’s picture book, illustrated by famed African-American artist Jacob Lawrence — we’re dumped immediately into the ill-advised, late-hours raid by Detroit police officers on an unlicensed drinking club located above the Economy Printing Co., at 9125 12th St.

The (mostly white) cops expect only a few patrons; they’re surprised to find scores of black citizens hosting a party to honor the homecoming of two Vietnam soldiers. Rounding up everybody for arrest takes too long; by the time the police depart with their “suspects,” a crowd has gathered. Pent-up frustration and long-simmering rage erupt into full-blown fury: Businesses are looted, buildings are torched.

Early on, the Detroit police didn’t react quickly enough, believing (hoping?) the riot would extinguish on its own. Within a day, law enforcement responds too much, with President Lyndon B. Johnson sending in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.

The sight of tanks rumbling through Detroit’s streets is chilling.

Subsequent chaotic events quickly center on several clumps of characters, starting with the members of The Dramatics, an up-and-coming soul vocal group that features lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith). Their potential big break at a huge performance hall is curtailed, at the last second, by the expanding riot; the group joins fleeing patrons on a bus, hoping to reach home and safety.

Earlier that same day, we met a trio of young police officers led by Philip Krauss (Will Poulter); his companions are Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole). The latter two are easily cowed by the aggressively brutal, hard-charging Krauss, a composite (i.e. fictional) character who serves as this drama’s representation of institutional evil.

(Demens and Flynn are equally fictitious. Along with Krauss, they apparently stand in for — Bigelow and Boal obviously mindful of lawsuits — actual Detroit cops Ronald August, Robert Paille and David Senak.)

Krauss’ introduction is startling; during a watchfully slow drive-by, he eyes the escalating carnage and laments to his companions that “We’ve let these people down” ... and then, with no warning, he responds to a lone looter by chasing down the young man and shooting him — in the back — with a shotgun.

Poulter, recently seen in The Revenant, is a brave actor. His performance here is terrifyingly persuasive, Krauss’ spiteful racism embedded at a lizard-brain level that controls his every word and deed. This role could easily haunt him for years, because it’ll certainly resonate with audiences for at least that long.

The bus carrying The Dramatics is enveloped by mob violence; the passengers depart, harassed by baton-wielding cops, and the singers split up. Larry hustles his young friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) to the Algiers Motel, in order to get off the streets during curfew; they’re able to get a room in the motel’s adjacent, detached three-story manor house, known as the Annex.

Once safely checked in, they join other residents congregating at the pool, and in other rooms: among them Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), Vietnam veteran Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie) and two white teenage girls visiting from Ohio, Julie Hysell (Hannah Murray, Gilly on TV’s Game of Thrones) and Karen Mallow (Kaitlyn Dever, well remembered as young Loretta McCready, on TV’s Justified).

Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), whose two full-time jobs include work as a security guard, is summoned for an extra shift to stand watch in a grocery store across the street from the Algiers. Dismukes is this script’s honorable hero, and Boyega is every inch the archetype: an intelligent, compassionate and perceptive individual who, fully aware of what can happen in an atmosphere of panic, repeatedly tries to prevent people — white and black — from making rash mistakes.

Boyega is one of the high-profile newcomers in the current Star Wars trilogy, which doesn’t much tax his talent. It’s nice to be reminded, in this film, that he possesses serious acting chops. Dismukes is an island of calm in a raging sea of terror.

Cooper, goofing around in his third-story Annex room, fires a starter’s pistol in the direction of peacekeepers on the street below. They over-react, terrified by the oft-repeated threat of snipers; within minutes, the Annex is assaulted and invaded by a massive contingent of Detroit police, Michigan State Troopers and the Michigan Army National Guard. Dismukes, recognizing an unfolding crisis, joins them.

The Detroit cops include Krauss and his two morally challenged companions, everybody in uniform screaming at the Annex’s residents, demanding to know “who has the gun.”

From this point forward, Bigelow and Boal abandon the greater riot, focusing exclusively on events within the Annex, during the lengthy second half of their 143-minute film.

What happens is beyond sickening, and very, very hard to watch. Because — for the most part — Krauss, Demens and Flynn are left to conduct the “investigation” in their own reprehensible fashion. For Krauss, this is a “free pass” to unleash his vicious, thuggish side: an opportunity he embraces gleefully. Frighteningly.

It feels real. It is real, to a great degree; this sense of authenticity reflects the input Boal received during exhaustive interviews with — most notably — Dismukes, Reed and Hysell. The horrific intensity — the even more horrific cruelty — is unrelenting.

And just when you think this saga couldn’t possibly get worse, it does ... during a postlude that’ll seem pretty damn familiar to people who follow current events. And we’re left with the reminder, as Bigelow and Boal obviously intend, that things haven’t changed much. If at all.

All that said — and while acknowledging this film’s power, and the well-structured precision with which Bigelow orchestrates this story — the tunnel-visioned focus on the events at the Annex, to the exclusion of all else, seems unjust. Forty-three people were killed during the five-day riot, and close to 1,200 injured; none of this is mentioned, not even during the descriptive photos that reveal what eventually happened to key characters.

OK, fine; Bigelow and Boal had a specific story to tell, and a specific point to make. But in their determination to indict institutionalized law-enforcement racism, they’ve ignored the broader socio-economic crisis, and what became of that in the riot’s aftermath. We’re left with all sorts of questions, along with a great deal of outrage (some of which can be assuaged via research).

Artistic passion can be a slippery slope to shrill vituperation, and one must acknowledge that watching — nay, surviving — this film is akin to being beaten by a sledgehammer.

That may have been Bigelow’s intent ... and, if so — sadly — it may not be misplaced.

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