Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 28, 2017 6:56 am 
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ANTHONY MACKIE IN DETROIT

Bigelow's punishing depiction of racism

Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit is her third and least satisfying collaboration with the writer Mark Boal. It is a torturous docudrama (it awkwardly interjects stock footage) whose general topic is the July 1967 unrest in the city of auto manufacturing and soul music. After a diffuse start it zeroes in on the Algiers Motel Incident, a notorious event of that moment in the course of which three young black men were killed in cold blood by police using a brutal interrogation method called "the death game" to find the identity of a supposed sniper. There is no need to put audiences through real-time torture sequences that traumatize them at such length. This is a messy and unclear film. Why was it made? Is it well-timed, or badly-timed? Striving for significance, Bigelow achieves violence porn instead.

There is absolutely no faulting the many fine actors involved in Detroit. Among them we especially notice the English actor John Boyega as the part-time security guard Dismukes, who tries to protect black victims and winds up charged in their murder; Will Poulter as Krauss, an invented composite of the racist murdering white cops at the Algiers; Anthony Mackie, co-star of THe Hurt Locker, playing a Vietnam vet, and Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore, playing Larry Reed and Fred Temple, two promising young singers unlucky enough to have holed up at the motel for the evening. These and numerous other cast members are vivid and good, and Bigelow has made a great effort to bring her many scenes to life.

But things go badly from early on with the excessive use of shakey-cam in depicting the street strife by Bigelow's Hurt Locker dp Barry Ackroyd. As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of A.V. Club puts it, Ackroyd "specializes in making movies look like they couldn’t afford the services of a professional cinematographer; his impatient style is half vérité mockumentary, half grandma’s camcorder." This is where the viewer-punishment begins, with over-close images of figures jostling about in a crowd. When cops get into a vehicle, the camera zeroes in on the rocker panels. Events are torturous enough without making them continually jittery.

From the street unrest, the film jumps to other, more specific, scenes. We see how early on in the rioting in the daytime Krauss kills a fleeing man, shooting him in the back, and is questioned and warned but not charged. As night falls, we follow a young male singing group, the Dramatics, handsome, charismatic and talented, who at the last minute lose their chance at a debut at the Fox Theater because of a police shut-down after Marsha and the Vandellas, just when the Dramatics are announced and about to step on stage. This is traumatic for the young lead singer. We also follow Dismukes in several actions. He acts as a peacemaker between white cops and black rebels, but gets called an Uncle Tom for his troubles. In the evening, he is stationed to guard a grocery store right across from the motel.

The prolongued "death game" torture sequence involves repeated beatings of a row of motel guests, to whom we've been introduced, including two young white women from Ohio who may be prostitutes (one, certainly). All of them are terrorized by Krauss, directing two other Detroit cops, while state cops and National Guardsmen come and go, seeing things are going wrong but mostly unwilling to intervene.

Bigelow and Boal treat this set of events in great detail, so it outweighs all the rest. But then there will be interrogations, a trial, the anger and sorrow of the black families of the three victims who go unrevenged, the traumatizing of the singer who left the group and still sings with a choir instead. There were other trials, but the movie only shows one. There is extensive recreation and extrapolation here, but that doesn't mean rigorous accuracy, by any means.

Detroit is an enormous waste of talent, which seems increasingly Kathryn Bigelow's story. Before Dark and Point Break showed a great talent. The Hurt Locker shows in spades her fascination and skill with macho violence. It is over the top, but succeeds through its focus on Jeremy Renner's bomb detonator which becomes a study of his dangerous and nerve-wracking occupation and of his narrow and obsessive personality. But with Zero Dark Thirty, which also drew a lot of attention, this time on a woman terrorism investigator, Bigelow gets bogged down in "significance" that she's not quite up to: her talents lie with creative use of genre, not Haneke-style profundity. The real significance of July 1967 Detroit would be to show how a riot was, in its core, a rebellion - and yet how that rebellion was turned by poverty and lack of leadership into rioting.

Detroit, 143 mins., had limited US theatrical release 28 July 2017; wider release 4 august; 25 Aug. UK.

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