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Movie Review: ‘Detroit’ Takes A Deep Dive Into The 1967 Riot’s Darkest Moment

‘Detroit’ isn’t an easy movie to watch, but Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow manages to find humanity in one of our state’s darkest moments.

There’s a scene in ‘Detroit’ where I literally gasped out loud. It’s when a police officer interrogating a prostitute strikes her, as if hitting a woman was the worst thing he had done in the movie ‘Detroit’. It wasn’t. Office Krauss, played by a very intense Will Poulter, had committed atrocities beyond smacking a woman, but this was where I drew the line. Why?

Philosophers have long debated the duality of man. The ability of any human to be kind one moment and nasty the next has always puzzled us.

The scary part is we never know if our goodness will rise up when we’re faced with unrelenting terror and try to stop it, or if we will sink to the depths of the worst devils of our nature and go along with it. And that is what makes ‘Detroit’ so tough to watch. Where would WE have drawn the line if we were witness to the hell that played out in the Algiers Hotel in Detroit that July night in 1967?

Bigelow had a tough challenge, trying to bring clarity to what even 50 years later is still a very muddy incident. And yet she draws you in by focusing on the eyes and non-verbal interactions of the victims and the perpetrators alike. And you begin to wonder where would you draw the line?

The Algiers Hotel Incident played out like this: in the heat of the rioting, National Guardsmen assigned to guard a Life Insurance company draw sniper fire. Believing it to have come from the nearby Algiers Hotel annex, police and soldiers storm the building seeking the sniper. One hotel guest is killed in the initial entry, and the rest are brought downstairs for questioning. What follows is two hours of terror imposed by the police trying to find the gun.

Mark Boals’ script draws heavily on the witness accounts of singer Larry Reed (played by Saginaw native Algee Smith in a break out role), prostitute Karen Malloy (Hannah Murray), and security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), all of whom also recounted their stories in the book ‘The Algiers Hotel Incident’ by John Hersey which was researched and written immediately after the riots in 1968.

Boals makes the Detroit Police Officers into fictional composites to draw on his narrative that has the racist officer Krauss leading the interrogation and playing a sick ‘death game’ in the process which draws in a Guardsman and a fellow officer.

Here’s where it gets intense. There are several instances in the early part of the terror where several people have to make decisions. Dismukes elects to play along with the police at first, as do several Guardsmen, but as the game Krauss plays gets more and more twisted, the Guardsmen leave, saying it’s ‘police business’, while Dismukes starts thinking about intervening.

Meanwhile, several of the ‘suspects’ face decisions on trying to escape, giving up more information about what actually happened (I won’t give that away), or trying to reason with the officers, none of which is very effective.

Their eye contact during these scenes reflects a common, knowing bond, that this is what day to day life is like in Detroit as a young black man. It’s a reality they’re clear on, but are powerless to stop.

There is a resignation in these scenes that is hard to fathom. While I can sympathize to a point, I admit I will never understand these feelings. But the actors, especially Anthony Mackie as Bob Greene, make it clear: ‘we’re used to this.’

It’s here where you begin asking yourself, what would I do? Could I draw the strength to challenge Krauss? Could I help people escape, or would I be indifferent because they may be criminals? As a National Guardsman, could I point a gun at Krauss to get him to stop? As a State Policeman, should I report what I saw to my superiors?

We like to think these decisions would come easy for us, but the truth is all of these players only have a fraction of what you know as the all-seeing audience, which makes the moral high ground more grey. And that scares the hell out of me.

I highly recommend ‘Detroit’, even though it has many failings. The storyline they choose to follow has never been proven, and the actual incident itself is more grey than Boar wants us to know. The courtroom scenes near the end seemed rushed and may not have been necessary, other to reiterate what we already knew, the system was stacked against them finding anything resembling the truth and favored the police version of what happened.

‘Detroit’ dredges up old wounds that haven’t healed. I would like to think it would lead us to a deeper discussion, but in this day and age, I don’t think that’s possible.

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