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Director: Kathryn Bigelow


Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie, Jack Reynor, Jacob Latimore, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever

“What did they do?”


A cry (now a statement) from the massed crowds gathering outside the unlicensed club where Detroit police officers are arresting party-goers for celebrating the return of black veterans. Not just arresting them, but rounding them up like cattle using what is termed as “excessive force”. For the black onlookers, enough is enough, the oppression and aggression against them needs to end and they’re willing to take it upon themselves to get change rolling.


The riots begin.

Having exhausted all local authorities, Governor Romney calls in the National Guard and paratroopers to attempt to restore order and authority to a city on the brink of implosion. When a fleeing black man is unlawfully gunned down from behind, police officer Krauss (Poulter) is temporarily spared murder charges in order to remain on the streets. As the big guns arrive, a local security guard, Melvin Dismukes (Boyega), attempts to curry favour with them by offering them coffee and graciousness - in desperate times survival is key by any means necessary.


With the riots blazing for days, the sound of Motown still rings through the city and concert halls – the spirit remains and especially for unsigned band The Dramatics who are in town to perform and score a record deal. Unfortunately they too fall foul of the riots as their big break is cancelled and their ensuing retreat from the hall is interrupted by riot attacks causing them to split up. Lead singer Larry Reed (Smith) and friend Fred Temple (Latimore) reach the Algiers Motel for refuge where they meet two young white girls, Julie (Murray) and Karen (Dever) in the company of a group of young black men. In an attempt at bravado, one of the men, Carl Cooper (Mitchell) stages a mock arrest involving white officers and black men using a toy gun. His friend Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.) is impressed, but no one else is, including Vietnam veteran Greene (Mackie).


Continuing his bravado, Cooper decides to fire his toy gun towards the nearby police outside. Bad idea. The officers mistake the firing for a sniper and unleash a rain of bullets on the Algiers before storming it and rounding every suspect up for some rough police justice, headed by Krauss.


Kathryn Bigelow returns to the big time with another intense, riveting and grounded story surrounding true events, teeming with signature filming techniques and pairing again with Mark Boal for screenwriting efforts (the two previously worked on The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty together). The 1967 Detroit 12th Street Riots and Algiers Motel incident, where three innocent black men were murdered, are her focus here and the tagline for the movie is “it’s time we knew”.


The majority of the movie takes place within the Algiers Motel - a small, slightly grimy dwelling with dark interiors and nowhere to run. It’s here the ‘suspects’ are rounded up and made to face the wall with the gleeful promise of being shot if they disobey, though random and vicious beatings were never off the table. The violence used against the huddled black party, and the two young girls, is never shied away from and the close-quarters depiction is brutal – the crack of a gun against skull, point blank gunshots, the implied sexual harassment, it’s all unflinching in its portrayal. At times, the movie veers into more thriller/horror territory than historical depiction – maybe that’s because inside the Motel that’s exactly how it was? There’s a pulsing intensity to these scenes as the unhinged Krauss and his cohorts (played with cold precision by Jack Reynor and Ben O’Toole) and Bigelow does a fine job of positioning the viewer right in the maelstrom.


Receiving top billing, Boyega is assured and controlled as Dismukes, the black guard caught in the Algiers hell with the acumen to keep quiet whilst the brutality escalates, bringing a needed humanity to the events despite being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Arch-eyebrowed Poulter delivers a disturbed performance as the key ‘antagonist’ Krauss, a man seemingly revelling in the power position he has found himself in, effortlessly combining paranoia and a smugness in his portrayal. Silk-throated Algee Smith receives the greatest development throughout and his story is the most affecting as his dreams of singing stardom collide with the real pain felt during the Motel incident. Hannah Murray also provides a confident performance as Julie, caught up by virtue of being in the same room as a black man and thus forced to receive similar abuse from the police.


The movie focuses more on the brutality of the situations and the racial undertones of authority than diving deep into the effects of the riots on the people, the titular city or the aftermath, with the resulting trials being rushed through and interspersed with historical footage or clippings. It would have been greater to have seen more of the resulting fallout and impact on the victims having seen the nightmare they were put through in order to really ram home the heavy, emotional message. A scene of Larry Reed singing to a small congregation at a gospel church towards the movies end is the closest we get to the movie baring its emotional soul. There’s less socio-political commentary on show, rather a visceral portrayal of events. Had the movie deviated toward this way of storytelling, it would have hit harder for me.


Detroit is a story that needed to be told, though it may have benefited from simply being called ‘Algiers’ or something along those lines. It’s hard-hitting, uncompromising, unapologetic and also very good. With added focus on the surrounding areas and the lasting effects on the city and its people, this movie could have been great. Instead, it settles for simply being a very good movie with a great ensemble performance.

August 21st 2017

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