[Screen It]

"DETROIT"
(2017) (John Boyega, Will Poulter) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramatic Thriller: During the Detroit riots of 1967, a number of African-Americans must contend with racist white cops who terrorize them and two white women in a motel.
PLOT:
It's 1967 and riots have broken out in Detroit following the police shutting down an illegal bar and manhandling some of the African-American patrons, all of which causes some locals to loot stores, start fires and so on.

All of which means that Larry Reed (ALGEE SMITH) and his R&B group, The Dramatics, have their chance of being discovered in Motown scuttled. With their venue being emptied and things getting worse out on the streets, Larry and his buddy, Fred Simple (JACOB LATIMORE), take refuge in the nearby Algiers Motel for the night.

There, they meet Karen (KAITLYN DEVER) and Julie Ann (HANNAH MURRAY), two young white women from Ohio who are hanging out with a number of black men in the motel, including Aubrey Pollard (NATHAN DAVIS JR.) and Carl (JASON MITCHELL). Seeing the chaos outside along with the presence of Michigan State Police and National Guardsmen who've arrived to assist the local police, Carl gives a demo to the young women about what it's like to be a black man stopped by a white cop.

One person who's trying to quell such tenuous and potentially violent encounters is Melvin Dismukes (JOHN BOYEGA), a black security guard who's been assigned to protect a grocery store from looters. Wanting to keep the peace and avoid further escalation, he intervenes when he can and tries to make nice with the armed white men by bringing them coffee and such.

What he and rest don't anticipate, however, is Carl firing a starting pistol from a motel window at night, all of which causes the cops and National Guardsmen to believe there's a sniper located there. Accordingly, local cops Krauss (WILL POULTER), Flynn (BEN O'TOOLE) and Demens (JACK REYNOR) arrive on the scene and round up everyone inside, including war veteran Robert Greene (ANTHONY MACKIE).

They then proceed to interrogate, harass and physically intimidate the men and two women, with the cops taking a dim view of those white ladies being with black men. From that point on, those who've been rounded up fear for their lives, all while Melvin stands on the sidelines, mostly powerless to do anything to put a stop to this nightmare.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
As a white kid growing up in the 1960s and '70s in Richmond Virginia, I saw my fair share of racism, both subtle and glaringly obvious. And unlike many people today who claim they are the victims of reverse racism, I experienced that firsthand while in middle school.

That's when a large group of African-American high school students surrounded me and my white friend one afternoon. Having singled us out only because of the color of our skin. we had no idea what they were going to do to us, and it was admittedly a very scary moment.

Thankfully they let us go without any physical harm, but we all know it didn't routinely turn out that way for others back in that era when the race numbers went the other way and the institutions in place either backed the white aggressors or turned a blind eye to their actions.

Thus, I could somewhat empathize with the characters in Kathryn Bigelow's latest tinderbox offering, "Detroit." In this historical period drama that's based on real life events that went down in Motown during the riots of 1967, it first appears that the director and her previous screenwriting collaborator, Mark Boal, are going to cover the entirety of that racial unease and violence from multiple angles.

The initial focus is sort of all over the place with archival and new footage showing scenes from around the city. While I get what the filmmakers are after with that storytelling tactic, that lack of crystal clear intent means some or perhaps a lot of viewers will be held at arm's length before the pic finally settles into its main story.

That revolves around the real-life incidents that took place in the Algiers Motel where a number of black men ended up shot to death. Using both documented facts and some speculation based on eyewitness accounts, interviews and such, Bigelow goes from a city wide event and related broad strokes down to pretty much just one locale (the motel) and the horrors that occurred within that.

And I use the word "horrors" on purpose as the movie essentially boils down to that sort of genre where a number of characters (various black men played by the likes of Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore and Anthony Mackie and two white women played by Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray) find themselves being terrorized by some racists after a stupid bit of firing a starter pistol has the men with real guns thinking they're dealing with a sniper. But they're not just any racists, as the situation is worsened by the fact that the three men at the heart of the victims' shared nightmare are all white cops (played by Will Poulter, Ben O'Toole and Jack Reynor).

While certain viewers enjoy horror films and all of the related material that comes with them, I'm not certain any will have the same sort of visceral response here. That's because 1) the usual genre tropes are not present, 2) the parallels to present day, white cop on black people violence clearly can't be missed and 3) many watching this will feel uncomfortable (and rightly so) rather than entertained as they usually are with more typical horror flicks.

That last element certainly seems to be Bigelow and company's goal and they accomplish it and then some, even if we've seen similar sorts of behavior in past racism-fueled movie offerings. Viewers will feel as helpless as the victims, knowing there likely isn't going to be some sort of third act victim heroics or comeuppance.

And we're given a boots on the ground representative for that in the black security guard character played by John Boyega. Wanting to keep the piece however he can but fully realizing that will result in some black folks viewing him as an "Uncle Tom" type and knowing the white cops have given him some leash and thus freedom from the terror but could yank that back in full revocation at any moment, he's something of an authority figure with no power in the situation in which he finds himself.

Bigelow and Boal then continue the horrors, albeit of a different kind when the film segues from the uncertainty of potential violence to the certainty of the black folks being railroaded by a rigged system. Most of that takes place in a courtroom where the lawyer for the defense (John Krasinski) only further proves that being black back in mid 20th century America clearly wasn't a walk in the park or a just experience. While still infuriating (especially with obvious parallels to contemporary events), that's also the sort of material we've seen before and like the broadly painted first act, it pales in comparison to the powerhouse second section where the main action and story percolate.

Because of those issues, I found this to be one of Bigelow's weaker offerings out of her past films. That doesn't mean it's bad, mind you, but I just never felt as affected by the horrors as I felt I should and could have. And much of that stems from the fact that I didn't feel that connected to the characters beyond the visceral, default response to their situation.

And while the film is timely in showing how things have and haven't changed in terms of race relations between the police and black citizens, its uneven approach over its three acts means it's not as powerful as it might have been. "Detroit" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed July 26, 2017 / Posted August 4, 2017


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