Bigelow tries to cap­ture the ’67 Mo­tor City war

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

Oddly in sync with the nar­ra­tive strat­egy (though without the im­pos­ing visual panache) of “Dunkirk,” the other his­tor­i­cal drama of the mo­ment, di­rec­tor Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” is an art­fully fraz­zled mo­saic of suf­fer­ing, putting the au­di­ence through the wringer in the name of truth, in­jus­tice and what many see, still, as the Amer­i­can way with po­lice bru­tal­ity.

At its best, the movie, writ­ten by Mark Boal, Bigelow’s col­lab­o­ra­tor on “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” evokes a spirit of mourn­ful provo­ca­tion, as the bloody Detroit events of July 1967 un­fold.

There are sig­nif­i­cant lim­i­ta­tions, how­ever, with Bigelow’s lat­est film, and they pre­vent “De- MPAA rat­ing: R (for strong vi­o­lence and per­va­sive lan­guage) Run­ning time: 2:23 Opens: Fri­day in se­lect mar­kets; Aug. 4 na­tion­wide troit” from mea­sur­ing up to those ex­cep­tional stan­dards. In var­i­ous, de­press­ing ways, the film speaks to our present-day, rage-fu­eled Amer­i­can di­vi­sions, clear echoes of where we were 50 years ago. Au­di­ences are re­spond­ing to “Dunkirk” be­cause it’s a re­as­sur­ing pe­riod piece about grace un­der pres­sure and never giv­ing up. “Detroit” is a tougher sell for a Fri­day night at the movies, be­cause it’s about peo­ple who never had a chance at jus­tice in the first place.

The events are well known in some cir­cles, less so in oth­ers. On July 23, 1967, po­lice raided an il­le­gal af­ter-hours bar (a “blind pig”) on Detroit’s Near West Side. This sparked ri­ots that, as one char­ac­ter notes, ex­ceeded the de­struc­tion of the 1943 Detroit clashes be­tween po­lice and AfricanAmer­i­cans. In the movie, An­thony Mackie plays a key sup­port­ing char­ac­ter, real-life Viet­nam War vet Robert Greene, caught up in the raid and the en­su­ing night­mare. He de­scribed it as worse than any­thing he en­dured in Viet­nam.

Some char­ac­ters are pulled from the his­tor­i­cal record; the key fic­tion­al­ized char­ac­ter (for le­gal rea­sons), a ve­nal, so­cio­pathic po­lice of­fi­cer played by Will Poul­ter, is based on an of­fi­cer found not guilty in court by an all-white jury. The ex­cru­ci­at­ing cen­ter­piece of “Detroit” con­cerns what hap- pened at the Al­giers Mo­tel, an $11-a-night dive, home to hook­ers, johns and tran­sients. Of­fi­cers, mis­tak­ing a starter’s pis­tol for sniper fire, turned against in­no­cent sus­pects in a show of out­landish, il­le­gal force. With the tacit co­op­er­a­tion of state po­lice and the Na­tional Guard, the in­ter­ro­ga­tion turned on a sick game of pre­tend killings (pre­tend for a while, any­way) in a room ad­join­ing the hall­way where var­i­ous bat­tered and abused sus­pects were be­ing held while po­lice searched for a nonex­is­tent sniper’s ri­fle.

It’s one hell of a dif­fi­cult se­quence to en­dure. Bigelow does not elide or cut out any­thing for the sake of go­ing easy on the au­di­ence. The au­di­ence’s sur­ro­gate, who re­mains watch­ful on the mar­gins of this long scene, is re­al­life se­cu­rity guard Melvin Dis- mukes, played by John Boyega of “Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens.” He’s a sin­gu­lar note of de­cency amid an in­de­cently cruel sce­nario.

Is there a way to dra­ma­tize a gut-grind­ing scene so that the au­di­ence stays rapt in­stead of check­ing out emo­tion­ally? Bigelow knows the an­swer is af­fir­ma­tive, but it’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily tricky. Here she can­nily cuts in and out of the scene for rhyth­mic va­ri­ety, pick­ing up other plot strands for a while, then re­turn­ing.

A hand­ful of films, such as Paul Green­grass’ splen­did “Bloody Sun­day,” have met the chal­lenge of dra­ma­tiz­ing civil un­rest and law en­force­ment out­rages mem­o­rably. “Detroit” comes close. Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic.


“Detroit” fo­cuses on the July 1967 bloody ri­ots pit­ting African-Amer­i­cans and po­lice that tore apart the city.

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