Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Will Poulter, John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Jack Reynor, John Krasinski, Ben O’Toole
I never walk into a Kathryn Bigelow film thinking it’s time to sit back, relax, and mindlessly take in entertainment. The Oscar winning director of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty isn’t interested in making those kinds of popcorn movies. Instead, she takes you inside a modern day headline hoping to get you thinking and talking about an issue affecting society. In Detroit, she goes back to the race riots in Detroit during July 1967. The movie starts with members of the police force shutting down a welcome home party for a local veteran. Their reasoning was due to an “after hours drinking party” at an unlicensed bar. Local citizens started rioting causing property damage to their neighborhood in a response to the unjust arrest of everyone involved. Tensions grew as the city erupted into chaos.
This sets the stage for the tragic events that followed at the Algiers Motel where Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal focus their story. It was like any other night at the motel with guests lounging by the pool enjoying a few cocktails. There’s a lineup of national guards across the street patrolling a different building all together when hotel patron Carl Cooper (Mitchell) decides he’s fed up with their behavior. He fires a starter pistol out of the hotel window in their direction just to scare them. He doesn’t think they will be able to trace the pistol back to the hotel. What followed are the tragic events that will forever be a part of Detroit’s history. Three white officers held seven black men and two white women hostage in the motel where their racially charged brutality leads to the gruesome beatings of everyone involved leading to the death of three black men.
It sounds like a story ripped out of today’s paper in the wake of the Freddie Gray and Philando Castile shootings. Those are just two of the many that have occurred recently spawning the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the need to refocus on the police brutality at hand. The movie is a painful reminder that this is still going on today. Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography has that in your face attitude modeled as if the film is a documentary taking the viewer right into the middle of the action. Bigelow doesn’t ease into it as she hits the ground running with the chaos in the city. It’s unsettling and on edge to the point where you wonder if there is a down moment. It happens briefly when we get introduced to Larry (Smith) who is desperate to make his big break as the lead singer of a Motown band called The Dramatists. He’s someone full of hope and inspiration only to have his one shot taken away. The introduction to this character reminds you of the innocence that is then taken away when he’s at the motel. John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is another innocent bystander thrust into the situation. His character Melvin Dismukes worked two jobs, one of which was working security at a grocery store. He’s someone who wants to make peace with the white officers while trying to protect his fellow black men who he witnesses being abused.
Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, and Ben O’Toole are tasked with the daunting job of portraying the three white officers at the core of the Algiers Motel incident. Poulter is probably best known for his youthful work in We’re the Millers or The Maze Runner. As Officer Krauss, he’s the ringleader of the group who we first see shoot a young black man earlier on in the movie. This is Mark Boal’s introduction to the blatant racism at hand with the character. Krauss’s supervisor reprimands with him with murder charges but sends him back to work anyways. Poulter’s performance shook me to the core. He’s so calculated and full of justification for his inhumane behavior. It’s an Oscar caliber performance to say the least if voters can stomach the performance. It isn’t just these characters that make this story galling. There’s a scene when state police arrive and realize what’s happening but are too selfish to want to step in and get involved. They wouldn’t want to risk their own lives or careers if they’re caught in the middle of it all. It’s one of many moments where you shake your head in frustration.
With a runtime of close to two and a half hours, it’s draining to remember that a majority of this movie is essentially one long torture scene at the Algiers Motel. It doesn’t have your traditional plot structure with a nice buildup of character introductions and end on a hopeful and positive note with a peaceful score attached to it. Boal gives a little bit of setup at the beginning and the last forty-five minutes is the courtroom drama of the story. Other than that, the audience is thrust into the chaos without warning. Boal’s a former journalist who did plenty of research and interviews to get the story right. The end credits explain that he and Bigelow had to dramatize parts of it as there’s still plenty of unknown with how the night transpired. There’s a scene where we see John Boyega vomiting in the bushes. I felt a bit sick watching all of this unfold.
Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t make easy films to watch. The film has garnered some criticisms about its non-traditional structure and character development. It has also been noted the film’s director, cinematographer, and editors are all white people trying to tell a very personal story about racism against the black community in Detroit. I had minimal knowledge of these events and the race riots that hit the city in 1967. I left the theater knowing that Bigelow and her crew made extremely effective film by making the audience go through such a gauntlet. There were quite a few people at the advanced screening that had to leave, as it was too painful to watch. It would be hard to leave this movie without some sort of emotional reaction and understanding that this issue still plagues our modern day society.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Essential viewing even if it’s one of the hardest movies you’ll watch all year.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 TICKET STUBS