blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving
Detroit is an intense, anger-inducing retelling of the Algiers Motel incident that took place in July of 1967, during what is known as the 12th Street riot. The movie centers around The Manor House, a portion at the rear of the motel, where various people ended up to avoid the riots. Detroit Police, Michigan State Troopers, and the National Guard were dispatched to the scene after gunfire was heard. Throughout the night the occupants were tormented and beaten by police, and three of them were killed. There was no jail time given.
That's the long and short of it. The minutiae of the night paint a terrifying picture of what it was - and what it is mostly still like - to be confronted by police as a black person. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal recreated the incident, which had already been the subject of a 1968 book, based on research about the night and the trial that followed. As stated in previous reviews, I'm not a fan of period pieces/docudramas. I struggle with why certain details are omitted or modified, or what the writer/director's fulfillment is for telling the story of the event(s). It was conceived to "commemorate" the 50th anniversary of the incident and riot. But, why? Who is this for?
Detroit is about two hours and twenty minutes of actual movie. It's tense from just moments in. There isn't much background to give since it kicks off where the riots began; an after-hours blind pig is raided by police, with angry bystanders looming. The message being sent about Detroit policeman (black or white) is murky, at best. After the initial looting and a not-so-fun montage we segue to officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) doing racist things and then justifying said racist things to his possibly racist partners. Classic Krauss.
Poulter's character is all too real. He's based on actual cops involved. Krauss believes (outwardly, at least) that he is there to save black people from themselves. If he doesn't stop the evildoers, who will? He feels that the police are "failing" the city and its residents by not taking a more hands-on (read: violent) approach to policing looters. Accountability? No. His obligation is to what he thinks is right and not to the people he has sworn to protect. He is also a murderer, already, and shouldn't have been on the job anyway.
Krauss ends up on the scene at the The Algiers once the shots were reported. He's with his team: bumbling Officer Demens and perma-sweaty Officer Flynn. Krauss and Flynn are on the same page, more or less, but Demens is still trying to figure out which darn book they're reading. The emphasis on how dirty the cops are - Krauss, specifically - really only increases the sheer disappointment of the eventual outcome.
John Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a security guard in the area during that night. He attempts to be helpful, but is ultimately unsuccessful in his efforts to play both sides while being accountable for neither. Amid Dismukes and the policemen is Warrant Officer Roberts (Austin Hébert), who chooses to go along with the deadly "game" being played. He seemed to have no ill intent, but by the time he decided to end his part in the night things had already gone too far. He did not want to be accountable for his mistakes, or others.
Among the occupants were members of The Dramatics, a Vietnam veteran(Anthony Mackie(who is possibly a relative of Falcon)), and two white women(one wildling) from Ohio. The film highlights the disdain of the white officers once they find the two women within the motel. This stays a point of contention throughout the entire incident. These guys were HURT. It would not be fair to say that their presence causes the unjust treatment, but it surely didn't help.
I'd be remiss, though, to neglect the bit of accountability of the motel's occupants. I know, I know. Hold on. Yes, they were 100% victims of discrimination. I will not argue any part of that. Referring strictly to the movie, the night could have gone another way with admission of guilt or by snitching. That's the beginning and end of their accountability, but it could have been the difference between one and three deaths.
There were a few personal stories intertwined with the bigger story being told at The Algiers. That element increased the drama as well as helped make the movie complete. The bulk of it takes place during that span of hours at the motel. As time passes the lone location gives you a similar sense of hopelessness and entrapment. It passes the suspense of the encounter to the viewer. I felt anxious watching. That's the intent.
I think the acting is astonishing. I suppose I'd have to also give credit to the writing. Still, I'm left wondering why it was made. I don't think it is commemorating anything worthy, because there was no favorable outcome. There is no positive resolution I am able to come to. It's a reminder that fifty years after such a well-known travesty of justice virtually nothing has changed except the year on the calendar.
At times, I can't tell if Detroit was meant to unite or to divide. Instead of giving us insight, it comes off as seeking to incite. Are Bigelow and Boal under the impression that terrible cops will watch it and decide to be less terrible? Are we supposed to now bend the knee to police just in case they have prejudices? It kind of aims the blame at everyone. I don't know, maybe that's the point?
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Verdict: Maybe See That