Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is dar­ing and dis­turb­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - ANN HORNADAY

In “Detroit,” di­rec­tor Kathryn Bigelow con­cen­trates and re­fracts the 1967 ri­ots in that epony­mous city through the lens of one of its most no­to­ri­ous yet largely for­got­ten in­ci­dents, when a group of white po­lice of­fi­cers tor­tured and mur­dered a group of teenagers at the Al­giers Mo­tel, then cov­ered it up.

Of a piece with Bigelow’s Os­car­win­ning 2008 Iraq drama “The Hurt Locker” and 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” the tense, har­row­ingly in­ti­mate “Detroit” rounds out a tril­ogy of fact-based, fog-ofwar in­ter­pre­tive his­to­ries. Even though it’s based on an episode that oc­curred half a cen­tury ago, it feels like her timeli­est movie yet.

As ti­tles go, “The Bat­tle of Al­giers” was al­ready taken, and probably too on the nose. But com­par­isons to Gillo Pon­tecorvo’s sem­i­nal 1966 po­lit­i­cal thriller are in­evitable as “Detroit’s” tightly coiled sit­u­a­tional drama takes shape.

Af­ter a pro­logue de­scrib­ing the mass mi­gra­tion of South­ern blacks to North­ern ur­ban cen­ters — writ­ten by Henry Louis Gates and il­lus­trated by an­i­mated images taken from painter Ja­cob Lawrence’s “Great Mi­gra­tion” cy­cle — the film takes view­ers into the af­ter-hours club at 12th and Clair­mount Av­enue where, in the early hours of Sun­day, July 23, the Detroit po­lice con­ducted a raid on a party be­ing thrown for a sol­dier re­turn­ing from Viet­nam.

As the po­lice were lead­ing their charges out of the build­ing, a crowd gath­ered and a dis­tur­bance en­sued that would lead to five days of fires, loot­ing, mass ar­rests, sav­age po­lice bru­tal­ity and more than 40 deaths, in­clud­ing that of a 4year-old girl who was mis­taken for a sniper by an of­fi­cer who shot her through a win­dow. That mo­ment is cap­tured with sud­den, heart-seiz­ing clar­ity in “Detroit,” which plunges the au­di­ence into the chaos, para­noia and pent-up rage that en­gulfs the city’s African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity, even as a young congressman named John Cony­ers Jr. (Laz Alonso) as­sures his con­stituents that “change is coming.”

But just when the viewer thinks that “Detroit” will be a “tick-tock” nar­ra­tive of the may­hem and so­ciopo­lit­i­cal up­heaval that de­fined the nearly week­long re­bel­lion, Bigelow makes a rad­i­cal shift, fol­low­ing a singer named Larry Reed (Al­gee Smith) as he and his group the Dra­mat­ics prepare for a ca­reer-making set at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. When the show is can­celled be­cause of se­cu­rity is­sues out­side, Larry and the band’s man­ager Fred Tem­ple (Ja­cob La­ti­more) take refuge at the Al­giers, where the vibe prom­ises to be far mel­lower, more wel­com­ing and safe.

It’s at this point that “Detroit,” which was writ­ten by Bigelow’s fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor Mark Boal, goes from be­ing a bluntly ef­fec­tive you-are-there ex­er­cise to some­thing far more dar­ing, so­phis­ti­cated and un­for­get­tably dis­turb­ing. Rather than treat the Al­giers as yet one more data point within a time­line that even­tu­ally in­cluded the ar­rival of the Na­tional Guard and, fi­nally, the U.S. army, Bigelow drills down into one of Amer­i­can his­tory’s most egre­gious cases of abuse of po­lice power, bring­ing it to life with vis­ceral de­tail and slowed-down metic­u­lous­ness.

The broad, his­tor­i­cal con­tours are th­ese: In an act of teenage bravado, a young man named Carl Cooper (Ja­son Mitchell) fired a starter pis­tol out the win­dow of the mo­tel; po­lice ar­rived on the scene, al­most cer­tainly killed Cooper (al­though ac­counts var­ied) and, in an ef­fort to find the gun, pro­ceeded to ter­ror­ize a group of young black men and two white girls, an or­deal that re­sulted in two more deaths.

It’s in this bizarre, sadistic se­quence that the con­text for the vi­o­lence and rage of the Detroit ri­ots comes wrench­ingly into fo­cus, as decades of in­tim­i­da­tion and im­punity on the part of the mostly white Detroit po­lice depart­ment take the form of racist an­i­mus, cru­elty and brazen mur­der. Led by a par­tic­u­larly nox­ious fic­tion­al­ized char­ac­ter named Krauss (Will Poul­ter, who hasn’t quite mas­tered Detroit’s dis­tinc­tive ac­cent), the po­lice are al­ter­nately fright­ened and ar­ro­gant as the sit­u­a­tion spi­rals into a wak­ing night­mare. Ob­serv­ing it all with mute alarm is a young pri­vate se­cu­rity guard named Melvin Dis­mukes, por­trayed here by John Boyega with wary but sear­ing self-con­trol rem­i­nis­cent of a young Sid­ney Poitier.

Like many of Poitier’s char­ac­ters, Dis­mukes is an avatar of re­spectabil­ity pol­i­tics, a man so ea­ger to re­as­sure his white col­leagues that he takes a pot of cof­fee to them ear­lier as a way to send sig­nals that he’s on their side. It’s th­ese ges­tures that ground “Detroit” and give it life, even as its hor­rors be­come in­creas­ingly grotesque. (The movie’s weak­est link is its di­a­logue, which in­cludes too much on-the-nose ex­po­si­tion about racism and Detroit’s his­tory of op­pres­sion.)

Work­ing with “Hurt Locker” cam­era­man Barry Ack­royd, Bigelow once again as­pires for view­ers to oc­cupy the same psy­chic and

phys­i­cal space as her char­ac­ters, who here spend most of the movie lined up with their hands against a mo­tel wall, not know­ing from one mo­ment to the next whether they’ll live or die.

When the film’s third act turns to the story’s ap­palling le­gal af­ter­math, the ques­tions that have long dogged the 1967 ri­ots — Why did black peo­ple burn down their own houses? Why did they loot their own shops? — seem un­for­giv­ably naive. “Detroit” flips the usual ques­tions to get at the cor­rupt heart of white obliv­i­ous­ness: Why has this his­tory been erased for so long? And why does it ring so griev­ously true to­day?

Al­ter­nately stretch­ing out and com­press­ing the nar­ra­tive, Bigelow and her cre­ative team, in­clud­ing edi­tor Wil­liam Gold­en­berg, have com­bined the most im­mer­sive as­pects of “The Hurt Locker” with the lin­ear pro­ce­dural as­pects of “Zero Dark Thirty” to cre­ate a new cine­matic lan­guage: a form of de­con­structed, al­most hal­lu­ci­na­tory re­al­ism whose un­pre­dictable shape and rhythms are al­to­gether ap­pro­pri­ate for the al­most in­com­pre­hen­si­ble mo­ment it seeks to cap­ture. (Doc­u­men­tary footage from the era is seam­lessly knit­ted into the drama­ti­za­tions, which were mostly filmed in Bos­ton.)

“Detroit” is an au­da­cious, nervy work of art, but it also com­mem­o­rates his­tory, memo­ri­al­izes the dead and in­vites reflection on the part of the liv­ing. In scale, scope and the space it of­fers for a lon­gawaited moral reck­on­ing, it’s noth­ing less than mon­u­men­tal.

“Detroit” con­cen­trates on the events in that city in the sum­mer of 1967.

Will Poul­ter plays a par­tic­u­larly nox­ious fic­tion­al­ized char­ac­ter named Krauss.

John Boyega plays Melvin Dis­mukes with the sear­ing self-con­trol rem­i­nis­cent of a young Sid­ney Poitier.

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