Detroit (2017): Part 1 of 2
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd
Producer: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Matthew Budman, Megan Ellison, Colin Wilson
by Jon Cvack
The film opens up at a party, shot in a handheld style that I truly wish could be retired for all big budget dramatic stories (military films excluded), containing bumpy camera work and tiny snap zooms that is ugly to watch and completely unnecessary; sacrificing creative camera work in order to achieve a realistic style that has been long played out. It was distracting enough for me to dread the near two and a half hour running, wondering what to expect.
Well, I was completely wrong, and while the opening scene did little to capture the essence of 1967, the rest of the films looks and feels as though it was shot during the period, intercutting footage from the era, and often leaving you wondering what was Bigelow's footage and what was actual. Having no understanding of the history, we see that the state brought in tanks, with the black community destroying and looting property, setting much of the town on fire.
I often hear ignorant criticism from white people who wonder why people would want to burn down their neighborhood. It’s an inherently racist statement, indicating that - as white people - they would never do it to their neighborhood. The refute, which I was glad to see included, is to reframe the question - in that how bad things must have to get for you to burn down and destroy your neighborhood? Things had become so desperate, particularly with relationship to the police and their responsibility to protect the neighborhood, that the community was willing to do whatever necessary, and then watch how much more extreme the animosity would become (Trump's presidency and his supporters could likely understand this point, metaphorically speaking).
Days later, we meet the young and very punchable faced Detroit Officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) who while patrolling the shoots a black looter that’s running away, who crawls underneath a truck to hide. Krauss is interrogated by an aboveboard internal affairs detective - he’s going to file a case of murder against Krauss.*
Nevertheless, until convicted, Krauss is free to continue roaming the streets. Rarely have I so hated a character based solely on their looks, which when combined with a devastating performance by Poulter, provides one of the most despicable characters since Anton Chigurh. He heads out with his other two partners and night begins to falls.
We then turn to pop black boy band The Dramatics, who are about to play to at a packed music hall where record producers are checking out the talent. The group is led by Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), convinced that the night will provide their big break. We remember that this is Motown’s heyday, where amidst all the incredible songs, there were riots outside the door - in this case literally, and the show is shut down. Larry and Fred decide to walk back to the hotel and we see a world that looks like the apocalypse, with police everywhere, lining up dozens of black citizens, and others throwing rocks through the bus windows. They manage to navigate through the riot police, getting back to their motel at The Algiers. Regardless of the riots, the place is bumping, with people drinking and hanging in the pool.
We meet Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) as two white girls wearing dresses, and it’s here that Bigelow’s talents shined, as this would have been so easy to overlook the additional layer of sexism occurring during the period and yet she combines the two with taste and perfection. It’s tough for me to admit, but after seeing situations like this across hundreds year of cinema, I assumed the two girls were prostitutes and I’m comfortable assuming I’m not alone. And I believe that was the point. Bigelow wanted to play with our expectations, to unravel our assumptions and stereotypes and make us feel guilty in the process.
Turns out they're friends with some of the other men in the house, and while open with their sexuality, they're portrayed as comfortable with their bodies and fully aware of who they are. The girls introduce Fred and Larry to Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) and Aubrey Pollard (Gbenga Akinnagbe; in a great role; hoping to see more from him) as they pass around a joint, with Julie making out with Larry, as Carl and Aubrey talk politics and what the situation means. In a brilliant scene we see Aubrey and Carl put on an act, culminating in Aubrey pulling out a pistol, pretending to shoot Carl who plays dead. Aubrey declares the best trick is to shoot out the window, scaring the police into thinking it’s a sniper. Against everyone’s recommendation, he fires away, discovering the gun loaded and alarming the police who return fire, soon discovering the source and entering into the house.
I can’t remember the last film that offered such a realistic immersion into another time, as often period pieces will rely on far more extravagant photography and style. As much as I hated the handheld style, like subtitles, you quickly get use to it, and the story takes over. It felt as though Bigelow had time traveled with a production crew, and like journalists, snuck into the heart of the ‘67 Detroit riots. Unfortunately, not knowing that this was based on a very specific story, the film then went inside the Algiers house, and all of that was abandoned, focusing on a terrifying and almost unbearably uncomfortable scene from recent American history.
I had seen many of the political blogs attack the film, and in an age where it’s nearly impossible to make a film without offending some group or individual (recently a co-worker said she was boycotting Get Out because she was in an interracial relationship; I didn’t want to start the debate). Without having read the details of these blogs, I do see where their overall point. The scene that follows involves Officer Krauss and his crew of crooked officers as they torture the black men and two white girls in order to find out where the gun is - refusing to accept that there is no gun. Similar to the opening scene, Krauss shoots and kills Aubrey point blank in the back, tossing a knife down next to him to make it seem like he was under threat.
Amidst the chaos, the body’s discovered by security guard Melvin Demukes (John Boyega), who’s accused of being an Uncle Tom, willing to suck up to the white Guardsmen and Officers in order to avoid any mishaps, in addition to offering a little extra protection to the store he’s protecting. The action at Algiers causes him to abandon his post and check out the situation, discovering Aubrey’s body and being entrusted to accomodate the officer’s interrogation tactic of taking each suspect one by one into a private room and pretending to assassinate them; hoping one of the other suspects would eventually provide the information.
The scene is full of yelling and crying and such abhorrent injustice, all dragging on for what has to be a least forty-five minutes, soon making me realize that this film is not about “Detroit” at all, but rather this specific event that would go on to make national headlines. Similar to Platoon’s and the Mai Lai massacre of the innocent and unarmed civilians, this film enrages you over the gross injustice taking place; especially as guardsmen and other officers (even one of the police Lieutenants who arrives and leaves) enter into the scene, saying nothing, not wanting to cause any problems for their fellow men in blue.
It’s a terrible and tragic moment, and yet I couldn’t stop thinking about Haneke’s criticism over Schindler’s List in creating entertainment out of the holocaust. While I disagree with attacks against Spielberg, a film like this does float a similar question. I was watching this film in a high luxury AMC theater with reclining sofa chairs, and the fact that some people might make money off this film left me feeling uneasy. Later digging into the criticism from other sources, the writers too took issue with essentially showing black men be tortured and killed for two and a half hours. Personally, I thought that this situation was far too much and veered toward bad taste.
*In writing this that I realize this was never raised in the court case, leaving me wondering what ever happened to this pending offense.
Continued to Part 2...
BELOW: Great scene of both politics and tension
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