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‘Detroit’ delivers in retelling of racial tragedy

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Released into national circulation just a week after its 50th anniversary, “Detroit” is the latest film from Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) in her loose “trilogy” of American masculinity and morality series. Dramatizing the events of the Algiers Motel murders that took place within the context of the Detroit riots of 1967, “Detroit” offers a harrowing if ultimately simplistic re-telling of the tragedy that took place within the confines of that building. Shot in a loose and hand-held style, the movie is no doubt meant to emulate both the pandemonium and chaos of the riots, but also the news footage capturing it. “Detroit” mostly succeeds in capturing this turbulent time in America’s history.

With any dramatization for narrative purposes comes the tricky territory of adapting it in a way that provides a solid story structure while still highlighting the history that makes the event important. And, given that any considerable portion of an audience might be fully unaware of the historical event taking place on screen, some amount of necessary exposition is required in order to fully educate the viewer on what they’re about to witness. This “Detroit” all does splendidly, providing enough historical and cultural context as well as a narrative “cushion” that allows Bigelow to capture the before and after of this horrific event. A lesser film just would have captured the event itself. Viewers are treated to both the lead-up and aftermath of the Algiers incident, being given a view into the characters’ lives before being thrown into a crucible of racial tension and violence. It is here where “Detroit” also excels, providing a pressure-cooker of agony for the viewer to sit through as consecutive horrible event are depicted on screen. It’s tough to watch, and the film doesn’t sugarcoat it or shy away from the violence. With situations like the one illustrated in “Detroit,” the director must walk the fine line between gratuitousness and necessary while still honoring the history of what happened, and Detroit succeeds here as well because every horrific act and every terrible event (sadly) has a reason for being on screen. And while the threshold for this kind of content will vary from viewer to viewer, for myself it never seemed unwarranted.

But, given all of Bigelow’s skill for dramatizing these historical events into a tense and terrorizing film, the horrors displayed on screen are undercut to some extent due to Bigelow’s tendency to overexplain and assume that the viewer will be swept up in the racial injustice and terror so as not to question some of the elements of the film that seem weaker in comparison to their stronger counterparts. To address the first complaint, it is with a great amount of certainty that I can (hopefully) assume that every audience member in the theater knows that what is happening on screen is wrong. Yet, Bigelow feels the need to hammer that point home despite its obviousness. “Detroit” depicts a dark and shameful time in American history, but Bigelow seems to be concerned that her audience members aren’t understanding that. During the second act, when the Algiers Motel murders are happening, a band of Michigan State Police arrive on the scene to assess the situation. After observing what the three uniformed cops were doing to the African-American guests they rounded up as “suspects” in the hotel, they report back to their captain the atrocities that are taking place inside the building. And what does the captain do? He turns to one of them and says, “well, that’s not right. They have their Civil Rights just as anybody else.” This fact-I would hope-is known. It could be argued that this character is providing historical context-indeed the Civil Rights Act was only passed three years prior—but— watching it in 2017, the whole scene feels needless and spoon-fed.

In addition, some characters’ motivations and actions, especially those involving the part time security guard Melvin Dismukes played by John Boyega, are unclear and foggy. This is partially due to narrative considerations (screenwriter Mark Boal does have a lot of characters to juggle), but also because the events that happened that fateful night in July are legally unclear. (The film ends with a disclaimer that some of the events have been “recreated” for narrative considerations due to unknowability and legal disclaimers.) This also extends to the main villain of the film, an on-duty racist cop played to great effect by Will Poulter. Teetering on the edge of comically evil, the audience is never really introduced into any of the motivations behind why he keeps doing such terrible things. All the audience knows is that he keeps doing them. While the film does provide a beginning and an end for the tragedy that occurred that night in July, some of the loose ends that come with the territory are still dangling.

In the end Bigelow has crafted a harrowing and important film that doesn’t feel like a needless exploitation of a crucial event in America’s racial history. Instead, it is an important reminder that race relations in America still have a long way to go. Capping off her loose trilogy of films about American violence through the lens of masculinity and the men who necessitate these events (Zero Dark Thirty does deviate from this partially), Detroit is a stark, if not mostly successful, depiction of how little race relations have progressed in America.

3.5/4

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