The Hippo


May 25, 2020








Detroit (R)
Film Reviews by Amy Diaz

By Amy Diaz

Detroit (R)

A group of young adults, most of whom are African Americans, are held hostage by city police at a motel in Detroit, an imperfect but interesting look at a true story from the 1967 Detroit riots.
A mass arrest at an illegal bar, witnessed by a crowd fed up with the aggressive tactics of the police, leads to riots, arson and looting in Detroit in July 1967. We see footage explaining that state police and National Guard are sent in and we see police arresting people by the dozens and some beating people on the street. 
We meet the men whose lives will collide at the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25, 1967, the third day of the riots. Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is a security guard called in to protect a grocery store. We see him bring coffee to the National Guard soldiers who show up across the street and, earlier, get a kid on the street out of trouble with a police officer by pretending the kid is his nephew. He seems to have a genuine desire to protect people and knows that often means finding a way to keep a situation with tightly wound white police officers from escalating.
White police officers such as Philip Krauss (Will Poulter). Early in the movie, we see Krauss remorselessly shoot a man he thinks is looting in the back. Later, when the National Guard hears what they think is sniper fire, Krauss, along with officers Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole), heads over to the Algiers, where they think the shots have come from.
The pistol fired in their direction is actually a starter gun — all noise, no bullets. Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) have the bad luck of being at the hotel. Larry is the lead singer in the band The Dramatics, which Fred manages. The group was about to go on stage when the show was shut down due to riots. The group left the theater and Larry and Fred, separated from the others, sought shelter at the Algiers motel. There, they briefly hung out with Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), the man with the starter pistol, and Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two young white women staying at the hotel. (Note: I wasn’t entirely certain how old everybody in the movie was supposed to be but the Wikipedia page on the real-life event says that many of the people staying at this building of the motel were in their late teens. Also, for those curious about fact-checking, text at the end of the movie suggests that while this is based on a true story, not every element is lifted directly from some triple-sourced definitive report; Slate, among others, recently had a piece explaining some of the “fact versus fiction versus nobody really knows” elements.) 
City and state police, National Guard and, for some reason, Dismukes storm the annex building of the motel searching for a shooter, an action that leads to one initial death and two more deaths of patrons as the night wears on. Somehow Krauss, who even other police officers seem to consider a loose cannon and a racist, winds up in charge of the situation, rounding up all the people staying in the building, including Greene (Anthony Mackie), a soldier recently returned from Vietnam. When an initial search for the gun turns up nothing, Krauss begins physically and psychologically torturing the motel guests. He takes some men individually into rooms and threatens to kill them, firing a shot to make the group outside think the man is dead. Some get beatings. The women are berated for associating with black men and are also physically assaulted.
Dismukes seems to try to be a calming presence. He pulls one young man aside when it appears that Krauss might be about to kill him and tells the man he just wants him to survive the night. Both Dismukes and a National Guardsman named Roberts (Austin Hebert) are increasingly horrified by what they see Krauss do but seem unable to intervene directly. Dismukes, an armed African-American, is also potentially at risk from a trigger-happy police officer (at least, I think this is what the movie’s position on Dismukes is). Roberts and officers from other agencies fear getting tangled up in a bad situation that is not strictly their jurisdiction. The result is that as the situation gets more dangerous and out of control, no one is able or willing to stop Krauss.  
Detroit starts strong, setting its scene of a city in turmoil and a community that has literally been occupied by an army. The blend of movie and archival footage and photos helps to put you there, in the moment. We understand, when events at the Algiers begin, what the environment is and why that is important to how everybody reacts. 
But about halfway through the night at the motel, as you’d expect the movie to get tighter and more zoomed in on the specific incident and characters, it starts to lose its focus. It feels like it takes step back from the action, as if it is watching it from behind a glass. This would actually fit if we were watching events unfold from the perspective of Dismukes, horrified but prevented from acting, but the story doesn’t actually track this way. The movie goes omniscient (or maybe just scattered) just as a personal viewpoint would have made for a stronger story. 
Detroit has some strong performances: Boyega, Mackie and Smith stand out as actors who had the right mix of skill and opportunity to give their characters a little depth. But about some characters we get very little information, including Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.), one of the young men at the motel who doesn’t survive the night. And in the movie’s final chunk, the aftermath of the Algiers is depicted in very broad strokes.
This is one case where the movie and its flaws feel secondary to the examination of the incident it portrays. The issues this movie examines are far more complex and important than the movie itself (probably, in fairness, than most movies have the ability to be): What has changed and what hasn’t when it comes to racism in American — in housing, law enforcement and the justice system. On this score (basically, presenting these issues) the movie succeeds. For what it discusses more than how it approaches it, Detroit is worth a watch. B
Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow with a screenplay by Mark Boal, Detroit is two hours and 23 minutes long and is distributed by Annapurna Pictures. 

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