Kathryn Bigelow’s latest effort is a docudrama about the 1967 Detroit riots, focusing on a specific incident of police violence against a group of black men at a hotel.
A particularly nasty historical instance of police brutality against African-Americans is wrenched back into the spotlight on its 50th anniversary in Detroit. Shot docudrama style with an emphasis on visceral force above all else, this third collaboration over a nine-year stretch between director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, after The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, emerges, creatively, as the least of the trio; intense and physically powerful in the way it conveys its atrocious events, the film nonetheless remains short on complexity, as if it were enough simply to provoke and outrage the audience. It’s a grim tale with no catharsis. Annapurna Pictures’ first feature film release can’t help but stir plenty of sympathetic attention in the press and among political activists, but audiences keen to put themselves through this wringer will remain somewhat limited.
Like Nate Parker’s now conveniently forgotten The Birth of a Nation last year, the new film is a based-on-real-events drama determined to pummel the viewer with a tough, unvarnished perspective on a violent episode in American racial annals that’s deeply unsettling. Historically, there’s little question that in Detroit the white authorities were the bad guys, so unless the creative artists are inclined to delve beneath this rendering to examine nuances on both sides, it’s uncertain what the film has to offer other than a punch to the gut.
The match that lit the fire on July 23, 1967, was a police raid on a Detroit after-hours bar in a black neighborhood where friends were celebrating the return of two locals from the Vietnam War. Things got out of hand, to the point where a local black assemblyman implored his constituents not to “mess up your own neighborhood.” But looting and destruction increased, more cops were sent in, the National Guard was called upon to protect the police and after three days, Detroit began to be compared to ‘Nam itself.
This is a film that begins darkly and only becomes moreso. Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd cover the initially random street violence with jittery, abrupt camera moves, much as a documentary camera operator might nervously re-point and refocus on unpredictable events based on where the action is. Shop windows are broken, stores are looted, and shouts and occasional gunshots of unknown origin fill the very dark nights.
In its depiction of this cauldron of helter-skelter violence lies the implicit and entirely plausible suggestion that the mainly white police in every instance overreacted to what was going on; if the wee-hours revelers had just been left alone on that first night, it’s implied that nothing untoward would likely have resulted. But heavy-handed response seems to have been the force’s modus operandi.
The main personal connection screenwriter Boal provides to all this comes through an enthusiastic young man named Larry Reed (Algee Smith), the smoothly appealing lead singer of a slick all-male group called The Dramatics scheduled to perform right after Martha and the Vandellas at a big downtown theater. When the tumult outside cuts the concert short right before his hoped-for star-making moment, Larry is devastated, and his own disinterest in what’s going down on the streets is clearly provided as a lifeline to viewers unversed in the incident.
So the point is made that if Larry can’t avoid being sucked into Detroit’s tragedy, neither can anyone else. On this third night of rioting, July 25, with the city hot and dangerous, Larry and his reluctant buddy Fred (Jacob Latimore) take refuge at the Algiers Hotel, a seedy place with a pool and rear annex where drugs and hookers are not unwelcome. The only whites around are two teenage girls, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), who appear to be up for anything and are palling around with a wild guy, Carl (Jason Mitchell), upstairs. Julie and Larry quickly hit it off, Fred is petrified and Carl plays fast and loose with a small toy gun.
Thus begins a long night’s journey into hell. In the film’s arduous, protracted and incendiary second act, the overwhelmingly white police force once again overreacts, raiding the hotel in the belief that there’s a sniper inside and, once committed, cannot back off without exerting maximum force on their multiple suspects. Carl is immediately shot dead, while several others on the premises, including Larry and Fred, are shoved up against a wall and subjected to no end of physical and mental abuse.
The cop in charge, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter, the kid in The Revenant), is a hideous racist and sadist of the worst kind (he’s also a fictional character, presumably, because whomever he’s based on in real life was found innocent in court and can’t be depicted as doing what the character is seen doing onscreen). Beating his terrified captives as they keep denying that anyone shot at the police or knows where the gun is, the baby-faced cretin is somewhat of a caricature — callow, sadistic, meanly manipulative, prideful in his reckless use of power and snickeringly snide in his continual reminders of how he’s the one in charge here and you’re not.
Krauss’ favorite game is to take his “suspects” into an adjoining room, threaten them with a bullet in the head unless they spill, then pull the trigger but deliberately miss, re-enter the hallway and announce that he’s just killed that suspect and the same will happen to the next one if he or she doesn’t talk. This gambit is interrupted by the arrival, at intervals, of the National Guard, the Michigan State Police and a well-meaning security guard, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who’s popped up before but is powerless to do anything to restrain the maniacal Krauss.
But when Krauss has another young officer join his nasty game, things go drastically wrong, resulting in more death, a cover-up and outright lies that carry all the way through the subsequent trials at which the policemen were eventually exonerated by all-white juries in courts outside Detroit. And even poor Dismukes, who only wanted to help but was powerless to do so, was investigated for murder in an example of outrageous legal overreach.
It’s impossible to sit through all this and not ponder how things are, or are not, the same a full half-century after the events on display. The highly publicized rash of seemingly unwarranted police shootings of black victims in recent years have led many to insist that things basically haven’t changed; others would point out that major city urban police forces are far more integrated than they used to be and that the kind of brash, overtly racist police behavior on display in Detroit would be an egregious exception rather than the rule these days.
Unfortunately, the film makes no effort to try to understand or present the police as anything other than monolithically heinous; except for Krauss, they’re scarcely more individuated than Darth Vader’s shock troops.
From a strictly stylistic point of view, this third consecutive collaboration between Bigelow and Ackroyd is not on the level of the previous two; the nervous camera coverage of the riots and other action feels a tad overcalculated and lacks evocative composition. Visually, this is possibly the director’s least striking film.
Compensating considerably for these shortcomings are many of the castmembers. Even if the characters are not deeply developed in the writing, the mostly young performers makes strong impressions and seem in the moment at all times. Smith is engaging as the talented young singer whose life course is entirely changed by this one night, and Anthony Mackie, who prominently figured in Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, scores again as a recently returned Army vet.
Boyega, now well known due to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, stirs sympathy as a regular guy whose desire to help only lands him in deep trouble, while Mitchell, in his brief appearance, delivers a live-wire unpredictability as the guy who appears to have unwittingly provoked the police into action on the fateful night. By contrast, the white characters essentially are confined to caricatures.
Shot mostly in the Boston area rather than in Detroit, where the crew spent about a week, the film certainly succeeds in providing a visceral, you-are-there feeling of being engulfed by these sorrowful events. But its insights never elevate to present a more exalted or acute perspective on what went down 50 summers ago. What we get instead is a ramped up “j’accuse” that will offer forceful connections with present-day incidents for those keen to find them.
Production companies: Annapurna Pictures, First Light, MGM, Page 1, Harper’s Ferry Productions
Cast: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, Nathan Davis Jr., Peyton ‘Alex’ Smith, Malcolm David Kelley, Joseph David Jones, Laz Alonso, Ephraim Sykes, Leon Thomas III, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Chalk, Jeremy Strong, Austin Hebert, Miguel Pimentel, Khris Davis
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenwriter: Mark Boal
Producers: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Matthew Budman, Megan Ellison, Colin Wilson
Executive producers: Greg Shapiro, Hugo Lindgren
Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd
Production designer: Jeremy Hindle
Costume designer: Francine Jamison-Tanchuck
Editor: William Goldenberg
Music: James Newton Howard
Casting: Victoria Thomas
Rated R, 143 minutes