Detroit ****

Detroit ****
Detroit ****

Bryan Miller

Bryan Miller

The China Syndrome was released on March 16, 1979. It chronicled, with a kind of pseudo-documentary aesthetic, the hazards of mismanaged and under-regulated nuclear power plants in America. Just twelve days later, a very non-fictional disaster was narrowly averted at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in rural Pennsylvania.
This, of course, made the filmmakers look like a bunch of geniuses. The valid panic over Three Mile Island helped transform The China Syndrome into a cultural touchstone and amplified its acclaim.
Relevance doesn’t guarantee success — often, quite the opposite. Out of at least a couple dozen movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only a small handful mustered significant success. Among those, The Hurt Locker was the only one that didn’t have a feel-good ending (Zero Dark Thirty’s killing of Bin Laden) or feature one American basically killing half the population of Iraq (American Sniper). For every big hit like Sniper or Hurt Locker, there are a half dozen In the Valley of Elahs and Grace Is Gones.
Kathryn Bigelow defied the odds twice with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Unfortunately, her latest work, Detroit, seems to be falling into the latter category. In a time when the news often seems like a horrific, never-ending melodrama of racial violence and unrestrained state aggression, perhaps its tough for some people to dedicate their two-plus hours of cinematic escape time to what looks, tragically, like the same story in a different year.
That’s a shame, because Detroit isn’t just a relevant movie, it’s a damn good one.
Detroit chronicles the race riots that spread throughout the city in 1967, and which were met with brutal retaliation from the police. It’s a one-time national headline that has been partially eclipsed in the American consciousness by events that came after it: the march on Selma before, and the Watts riots and assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after.
The film begins as kind of panoramic view of the riot, beginning with an outbreak of police violence outside a nightclub. (Actually, it begins with a very brief, ill-conceived animated prologue, but you’ll forget about that right away.) The fragmented narrative skips around the city, from the first thrown punches and rocks to a concert hall where future Motown sensations The Dramatics are about to give their breakout performance, led by Larry Reed (Algee Smith).
Elsewhere in the city, future U.S. Representative John Conyers (Laz Alonso) tries to focus the crowd’s anger away from violence, while a black cop named Dismukes (John Boyega) heads out to essentially work security during the mayhem. Elsewhere still, a white officer named Kruass (Will Poulter) shoots an unarmed black man in the back while he’s running away — and is sent right back out on the street.
These stories will all tragically converge at the Algiers Motel, where the Dramatics find a place to wait out the fighting. Larry and his uptight best pal and manager Fred (Jacob Latimore) are out by the pool when they meet two white girls (Hannah Murray, aka Gilly from Game of Thrones, and the fantastic Kaitlyn Dever of Justified and Short Term 12). They follow the girls upstairs to a party with an edge of anger to it, across the hall from calm, world-weary Vietnam vet Greene (Anthony Mackie).
An ill-timed prank draws the attention of the National Guard and Detroit police, led by the vicious Krauss. The standoff turns into a shakedown that threatens to tip into a massacre as the Detroit cops escalate the violence and terrorism.
It looks sadly familiar. Bigelow said she was inspired to make the film by the protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting of Michael Brown. That’s only part of what gives the film modern relevance, and is in a way irrespective of its historical significance. That it happened at all makes it worthy of memorializing on film, but that the same racialized violence is happening still, with greater urgency and frequency, makes it essential viewing.
Few directors alive control the cameras with such twitchy immediacy as Bigelow. She has an almost unrivaled ability to put the viewer in the middle of a melee and still capture the full scope of the action. As the tension inside the Algiers mounts, the camera presses closer into the faces of the frenzied cops and their frightened captives. The heat of the Detroit summer almost visibly oozes into that confined space with the claustrophobic tension mounts, awfully and irrevocably.
The ensemble cast is consistently terrific, from Poulter’s vile villainy to the tragic bumbling of his complicit partner, played by Jack Reynor. The true standouts are Mackie, already a big-time movie star, and Boyega, who has just become one thanks to his inclusion in the Star Wars franchise. But the power of this performance calls back to his stunning debut in the underrated British sci-fi movie Attack the Block, where his silent intensity carried the day.
I never thought I would give this advice to anyone, but, really: Go to Detroit.