Friday, August 4, 2017

'DETROIT:' A Compelling, Appalling, Terrifying Movie Masterpiece

As I drove across the state of Michigan I kept saying to myself, "Maybe if I keep believing the name of the movie is really CLEVELAND, I'll be less defensive. At least I want to keep an open mind."

The object of my magical thinking was DETROIT, director Kathryn Bigelow's dramatic and dramatized take on one of the lesser-known incidents (unless you're from the Motor City) that emerged from the Detroit riot of 1967, the violent uprising that today competes with Los Angeles '92 as the deadliest and most destructive civil disturbance in American history.

The film had its world premiere not in Hollywood, but at a jam-packed Fox Theatre July 2017 in downtown Detroit. The premiere was a first for the city, and I essentially made a one-day, 800-mile round trip car ride just to sit in that historic audience.

I review films on The Pulse With Karen Dumas every Friday at 5 on 910am Superstation in Detroit (forgive the shameless plug), and to miss this advance screening, with this audience in this city, would have been nothing short of heresy. Even if that wasn't the case, however, I knew I just had to be there.

Now Bigelow, director of such war-torn blockbusters as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, is the first woman ever to win an Academy Award for directing (for Hurt Locker), so I was pretty sure I wasn't traveling to DETROIT to see a new rom-com. However, though I was born in West Michigan, I consider myself an adopted Detroiter in spirit. I lived more than half my life in that city. I became a man in that city. And, like most Detroit residents and expatriates, I am viciously protective of its image and reputation.

Detroit has been the punchline of way too many jokes, crapped on more frequently than a car windshield. As a writer with a Detroit history, I was asked more than once this year to research and write articles on the 50th anniversary of the riot, so details remain fresh in my brain. (Including a cover story I penned for the Wayne State University alumni magazine.)

And now some buzzy LA director – and a white director, at that – is coming to town to revise our history regarding the Algiers Motel, where three young black men were slaughtered by Caucasian cops at the height of the '67 uprising and eventually acquitted at trial? O...M...D.


Let's just say my BS detector was in the red zone. Deep breaths...deep breaths. The name of this film is CLEVELAND...CLEVELAND....

The first thing that surprised me upon arriving in downtown Detroit was that, outside of the Midwestern glitz and red carpet hubbub directly in front of the Fox, there didn't seem to be any excitement – or tension – about the film around the city. The bartender at the Hockeytown Cafe, right across the street from the theater, said she had no idea a movie named DETROIT even had been made, much less was having its debut next door. "Hey, I don't watch TV," she explained.

Well, surely that must be the reason, because rarely will you see a movie you don't know that much about receive more advance TV hype than this one. There seemed to be a DETROIT promo airing on one channel or another every half-hour leading up to its Aug. 4, 2017 national release. John Boyega, the GQ cover boy of the month and Black Male Actor of the Moment, is talking about his work on the film to anyone who'll give him a microphone.

Producers had to do this, I'm guessing, because they have a double burden to overcome: making moviegoers who have a negative image of Detroit, or no opinion at all, care about the story, while not automatically pissing off the legion of people who deeply care about the city.

Michael Eric Dyson, the Detroit-born author, academic and broadcaster who served as unofficial local concierge for the film crew, proclaimed Bigelow "a hero" for bringing the story of the Algiers Motel to the big screen during his fire-and-brimstone introduction at the Fox. "Now some people say, 'Why a white woman got to do it?'" he asked, echoing the question many have already posed. "To clean up the mess that white people made! Did she use and leverage her white privilege to identify with black and brown people who have been demonized?"

For her part, Bigelow took a turn on stage to graciously thank her hosts. "Detroit has a complex past but I think also a very bright future, and the credit for that lays nowhere else but with its people."

John Boyega, he of new Star Wars fame, stars in DETROIT.
So complex, perhaps, that the film opens with a rather simplistic, animated segment to bring the viewer up to speed with the Detroit of 1967, a city in which the African American population had swelled to at least 40 percent while nearly 90 percent of the city's police department remained white. Tension was virtually inevitiable.

When a neighborhood community center – often misidentified as a "blind pig," slang for an unlicensed after-hours bar – is raided in the middle of a welcome home celebration for two Vietnam War returnees (one portrayed by Anthony Mackie of the Captain America franchise, one of the few faces besides Boyega's you may recognize), that tension spills out of the building and into the street.

Playing real-life private security guard Melvin Dismukes, Boyega attempts to protect his employer's business from the increasingly violent throng while playing peacemaker, and being called an Uncle Tom for his troubles. During his efforts, however, he unwittingly becomes an eyewitness to events unfolding inside the Algiers Motel, where members of the fledgling R&B group the Dramatics have decamped after their concert has been evacuated.

With a sea of white Detroit Police officers, state troopers and national guardsmen swarming the streets, nerves on overdrive and reports of snipers in the air, someone inside the Algiers thinks it would be hilarious to shoot a starter pistol out of a window. (Note: this would not be a wise idea even today.) The police response is swift, brutal – and shocking.

A three-officer team led by patrolman Phillip Krauss (Will Poulter) – his real name changed to protect the guilty – demands to know where the gun is, who's got it, and who shot at the cops. And they're not taking "I don't know" for an answer.
Anthony Mackie's character goes from one war to another.

DETROIT begins with the deafening noise, scattershot violence and breakneck action of a city gone mad, then screeches almost to a halt as it introduces us to the cast of characters inside the motel. And then it does what only the best movies can do: it transports us.

In an extraordinarily long scene that feels like an excruciatingly long night, we are in the Algiers Motel, standing alongside the row of suspects lined up against a wall. It's practically Hitchcockian: I kept recalling the master's suspense classics like Rear Window and Lifeboat, in the way Bigelow is able to sustain so much riveting tension and emotion in such a small, enclosed set.

The black men are immediately presumed guilty; the two young white women who were in their company are instantly branded as prostitutes, or worse. With every unprovoked assault, as the intimidation becomes more harrowing and the actions of the police officers grow more random and barbaric, I could hear audience members of all races and ages groan, gasp and wince at every appropriate moment. And any person of color in that audience who can say they weren't thinking of Philando Castile or Alton Sterling or Sylville Smith or so many others, well....

This is man's basic inhumanity to man, power unchecked and nearly limitless against the ultimately powerless. It's an American horror story from 50 years ago that could happen again tomorrow. Poulter, that skinny kid from We're the Millers, appears to grow horns as we watch, becoming the epitome of Satan himself, his arched eyebrows seemingly adding to his menace.

(And while I'm thinking about it, Poulter is British. Boyega: British. What, only British actors can play Detroiters? The closest geographic connection among the lead actors is Algee Smith, the Dramatics lead singer, who hails from Saginaw. Since this film is going to bear the name of the city and project an image to the world long after we're all gone, it would have been nice to have someone from Detroit in DETROIT.)

In an interview on CBS This Morning, and in his British accent, Boyega explained, "In any movie like this, you have to keep the level of intensity to assure that there's an emotional truth to the characters you're playing. You want to make sure that you're doing them justice, as we are playing real people. It's tiring. You get hungry real quick. But it's worth it."

DETROIT is tiring. Exhausting, in fact. You get hungry real quick: hungering to get out of that space, but eager to tell others about it and perhaps experience it again. It's a cinematic thrill ride. And it's well worth it.

It isn't the best movie I've seen this year – Get Out, the tour de force from first-time black director Jordan Peele, still wears that crown. But DETROIT managed to completely turn around one skeptical, suspicious Detroit lover and have him singing its praises. That's no small accomplishment.

On The Big Glowing Box Remote (out of 10) 8.5 clicks