DETROIT Review - Emotionally Riveting, Shocking, An Early Oscar Favorite

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DETROIT, from Annapurna Pictures, presents the story of the 1967 Detroit Riots, one night, three rouge cops, a city out of control, and an horrific encounter at the Algiers Hotel, which would end with three dead, others, the survivors, incapacitated.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, DETROIT stars John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Jack Reynor, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben O'Toole, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie, Nathan Davis, Jr., Peyton 'Alex' Smith, Malcolm David Kelly, Joseph David-Jones, Laz Alonso, Ephraim Sykes, Leon Thomas III, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Chalk, Jeremy Strong, Austin Hebert, Kris Sidberry, Lizan Mitchell and Samira Wiley. DETROIT was written by Mark Boal.

DETROIT begins with a pictorial intro, of African American art work, frame by frame, depicting the migration by the Negro from the deep south to northern cities, recapping the last fifty years.

We find the Negro wasn't the only thing that migrated from the South, lynching, white supremacy, KKK tactics, hate also made its way North and in 1967, spread like a plague, a disease of mind and heart, that was attacking neighborhoods around the country.

In July of 1967 DETROIT was the fifth largest city in America, policed by nearly an all-white force, who did not think twice about the use of violence to keep "the colored" in line.


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The film begins with a raid on an illegal after hours club on July 23, a black cop, his informant and a city already on edge. After the Negros from the club were arrested the neighborhood men, who had been watching the incident were verbally sparring with the police, which lead to retaliation of threats, which escalated to replies of rock throwing.

The police quickly left, as in the LA 92 riots, for their own safety they abandon the position, after the police left, one person with uncontrollable rage, who had had enough of the system of injustice, began a lawless looting sprees. Others, fueled by mob mentality, followed.

Soon they were tossing the motif cocktails and white owned business were being systematically destroyed. Destruction of livelihood has always been a common war tactic. Businesses belonging to the "enemy" were often destroyed. In Detroit in 1967, black owned businesses spray painted "Soul Brother" on the doors hoping to save their livelihood.

As the riots rolled into Day Two, then Governor George Romney ordered Michigan State Police and Michigan National Guard. Military Guns, with trigger happy weekend warriors were on the street, at the hint of trouble, the whiff, or glint of sun glare, without provocation, friend, foe or child, the weekenders were using the war guns to suppress the shadow in their imagination.

Until this point we haven't meet our key players, we've seen mob rule and military suppression, hitting key horrors of the riots. It's now the film narrows to the events at the Algiers.

We meet first the Detroit PD, Krauss played by Will Poulter, Demens, played by Jack Reynor, and Flynn, played by Ben O'Toole. Patrolling the 12th Street Neighborhood with orders not to shot looters, the three are exchanging banter with Krauss, the most racist, believing the riots will rival those of 1943. Watching the buildings smolder, he dictates his opinions to the others, hard-line rule, his positions on control, on supremacy due to the badge, through suppression. Not as race, of course.

Before the Algiers there were hints that Krauss was a cop on the edge; the riots and the need for street police allowed him to head out for a night of belt notches.

As we pan to the Algiers we meet those staying at the cheap motel in the parameter. The lead singer for The Dramatics, Larry, played by Algee Smith, his manager, Fred, played by Jacob Latimore, picking up a room for the night to ride out the mob rule that had taken over the streets.

Those two would meet up two girls from Ohio, Julie, played by Hannah Murray and Karen, played by Kaitlyn Dever, who would introduce them to a group of friends who lived in the Annex of the Hotel: Carl played by Jason Mitchell; Aubrey, played by Nathan Davis, Jr.; Lee, played by Peyton 'Alex' Smith; Michael, played by Malcolm David Kelley and Morris, played by Joseph David Jones. Another guest, a Vietnam Vet, Greene, played by Anthony Mackie was also staying at the hotel.

Working security in the same area, Melvin Dismukes, played by John Boyega and National guardsman, Warrant Officer Roberts, played by Austin Hebert.

What started as an evening of promise for some, fun for others, thankfulness for others rapidly deteriorated into a living hell when the Detroit Police raided the hotel believing a sniper was firing on them.


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DETROIT is an emotionally riveting film which will penetrate the soul. The film is not the product of a man's imagination it is a true to life recreation of actual events. Which causes its heart to hit like a stifling summer heat.

Bigalow takes a huge event, beginning at the top of the funnel, of the African American migration to northern cities, narrows it to a season, narrows the focus even further to a day and down to a specific event. This style of filmmaking is different, and unexpected, which can create for the critic not so much for the movie goer, a curiosity of dissection.

Bigelow has documented the events with masterful authenticity remaining truthful to the days, times, seasons and events. She doesn't hold back allowing traumatizing and horrifying scenes to play out. She doesn't play to the audience; she brings the fullness and apparently expects her cast to do the same.

The entire cast, validating those long dead, brought a depth to their performances that came from somewhere unknown and gave life to this appalling and shocking injustice with a genuine legitimacy.

Trauma can be a long lonely road to recovery and it is shown Larry, the once lead singer for The Dramatics, who was unable to recover emotionally from that evening, and with his support system gone, trauma kicked him down, and held him in that place for some time, until circumstances forced him to make a choice.

Letting the film simmer, it was easier to see the need to set the tone. This season of Civil unrest, an event fifty years ago, and it could be Staten Island, Ferguson or Minneapolis. And begs the question of police brutality, how far does the badge shield if as a society we have not progressed in fifty years?

Injustice reverberates through the decades, a constricting, strangling, deep chest hollow, "I can't breathe" echo of violence past and present.  

DETROIT is a reactionary film. It is staggering, distressing, with inexcusable, horrific, atrocities. What follows is equally astonishing, although not surprising and brings to mind recent injustices.

DETROIT is playing in select cities and opens wide August 4, 2017. See this film. 

 

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