Bigelow tries to capture the ’67 Motor City war
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.