'Detroit' Dramatizes A Deadly '67 Motel Encounter Between Police And Civilians

Jul 28, 2017
Originally published on August 1, 2017 1:10 pm
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal won Oscars for their 2008 film "The Hurt Locker" and had a box office hit in 2012 with the hunt-for-bin-Laden film "Zero Dark Thirty." Their newest collaboration is "Detroit," based on a deadly motel encounter between law enforcement and civilians during the city's 1967 riots. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Kathryn Bigelow's film "Detroit" dramatizes what happened at a motel called the Algiers on the third night of the city's summer of 1967 riots. More than 40 people died in those riots, among them a white cop, which I highlight because his death was on the minds of police when they heard what seemed like sniper fire from the nearby Algiers. Three people would die by the end of the incident. It plays out like a war crime. Bigelow has spent her last decade making movies about the psychology of war, first with "The Hurt Locker," then "Zero Dark Thirty," which was castigated in some quarters for saying without evidence that torture elicited useful intelligence on Osama bin Laden's whereabouts.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal were stung. Now they've chosen to tell a true, largely forgotten story in which torture doesn't work. Their poster boy for torture is a white patrolman, Krauss, played by the British actor Will Poulter with his arched, satanic eyebrows. Early on, Krauss shoots a looter in the back. But that's nothing next to what he'll do with the Algiers. The title "Detroit" is way too broad. The film opens as if it's going to show the history and disintegration of an entire city. But the focus quickly shifts to the motel. We arrive at the Algiers in the company of performers having a bad day.

Larry Reed, played by Algee Smith, sings with the soul music vocal group The Dramatics, who are about to hit the stage at a fancy theater packed with Motown executives when a call comes to evacuate. After their bus is swarmed by rioters, the dejected Larry and his pal Fred glimpse an oasis, the sign for the Algiers, where there's an ongoing party. They flirt by the pool with white girls from Ohio and end up in the motel's annex in the room of a man named Carl played by Jason Mitchell. That scene is the film's most dramatically complex. Carl and a friend improvise a play with Carl in the role of a white cop hassling a black civilian. But things get too real. Carl pulls out a gun and shoots his co-star. Only not really. It's a starter pistol.

Still, the prank emboldens Carl. He fires his fake gun out the window at the distant police and whoops with glee as they dive for cover. And so we arrive at the movie's dark heart, the sequence in which black men, among them Larry, Fred, a Vietnam vet played by Anthony Mackie and the two white women face a wall while cops led by Krauss pace in back of them, punching and pistol whipping them, demanding to know where the gun is. The interrogation goes on for more than an hour on screen, the camera on top of the captives as they plead and weep.

They take one guy into a room and pretend to execute him. They take another guy. But this time, the game turns lethal. When nothing else works, they torment the white girls for supposedly having sex with black men. Members of the audience with which I saw the film began to cry out halfway through. And so did I. Our hopes were kindled by the hovering presence of other cops and National Guardsmen. But no one intercedes - not even a black security guard played by John Boyega, who'd attempted to ingratiate himself with the National Guard and now watches with quivering passivity.

Bigelow's style is visceral, meant to trigger our fight-or-flight instincts. She and Boal give us little insight into the psyche of the cops or the black security guard. There are major gaps in motivation and logic. We don't even see how the riots ended. What Bigelow does incomparably is put us in that room, inducing feelings of powerlessness beyond our capacity to imagine on our own. She keeps that feeling going through the courtroom scenes as the cops are put on trial with infuriatingly predictable results. Movies like "Detroit" are a kind of historical accounting. By exhuming and reanimating the events of that night, Bigelow ensures that what happens in Detroit doesn't stay in Detroit.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show, Tom Perrotta, author of the novels "Little Children," "Election" and "The Leftovers," which was adapted into an HBO series. His new book, "Mrs. Fletcher," is about a single mom and her son and how they both are transformed after he leaves home for college. The story is about major life transitions and the sexual transitions that can accompany them. Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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