Saturday 20 April 2019

Movie Review: Detroit (2017)

A drama about race-fuelled tensions erupting into violence and murder, Detroit recreates a chapter of history that still carries powerful resonance.

It's 1967 in Detroit. Tensions are high in the black-dominated inner-city. A raid on an illegal nightclub by the all-white police force triggers violent street rioting and looting, and the national guard is deployed to support the Detroit police. Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) is a trigger-happy police officer not beyond shooting rioters in the back.

Caught up in the chaos is security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). Being black but also a figure of authority, he walks a fine line to try and maintain the peace. The aspiring R&B band The Dramatics is hoping for their big break, with lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) poised for stardom. But the rioting interrupts their first big concert, and Reed and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) take refuge at the Algiers Motel where they meet Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two white girls who may be prostitutes.

Vietnam veteran Karl Greene (Anthony Mackie) is also at the hotel, as is the confrontational Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) and his group of friends. When Carl fires harmless starter pistol shots out of the window, the police descend on the hotel with Krauss as the lead officer. The subsequent stand-off and brutal police interrogation leaves three people dead and a trail of unanswered questions.

Based on real events, Detroit reexamines a distressing episode in American race relations. The murder of three black men at the Algiers Motel by white authority figures is another appalling milestone when black lives did not matter, and decades later the country continues to grapple with some of the same tragic fault lines.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are broadly successful in creating the larger social context, and Detroit effectively conveys a city core where the predominantly black population clings to hope against an overwhelming wave of despair. The heavy handed enforcement tactics force a tipping point, unleashing anarchy that swallows up neighbourhoods in fires fuelled by rage. As in any urban war zone, most of victims are the innocents caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Bigelow is less effective in rounding out her characters. At over 2 hours and 20 minutes, Detroit would have benefitted from tighter editing, fewer incidental distractions and more focus on the people at the centre of the drama. Security guard Dismukes and singer Reed come closest to resonating, but still suffer from shallow definition.

As the centrepiece to the film, Bigelow stages the raid on the Algiers Motel as an agonizing nightmare unfolding in the searing pace of life-defining events perceived in real time as never ending. The cruel heartlessness of officer Krauss and his colleagues as they toy with the lives of black men (and two white women), deciding who lives and who dies, is a harrowing cinematic achievement.

For all the lessons to be learned from the Algiers Motel murders, Detroit is unfortunately both essential history and regrettably close to continued reality.

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