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The burning rage of ‘Detroit’

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Film dramatizes real-life tragedy at the Algiers Motel

Great cinematic partnerships don’t come along every day. Collaborators capable of creating not only a great work, but multiple great works, are precious and rare in Hollywood. These are the teams that share a frequency – and that sharing reflects in the work.

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal are one such team. Their work together – 2008’s “The Hurt Locker” and 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty” – has been consistently excellent, presenting realistic portraits of violent, unstable times.

Their latest is “Detroit,” a film that trades the war zones of the Middle East for one that existed in one of this country’s largest cities not so long ago. It’s the story of a dark and tragic incident that took place in a dark and tragic time for civil rights and the city of Detroit.

It’s also the sort of movie that sticks with you long after you depart the theater – particularly if you, like me and so many others, have only a passing familiarity with this sad time in American history.

In the summer of 1967, Detroit is boiling over. Racial tensions have been climbing for years – and that tension finally breaks. There is rioting in the streets of African-American neighborhoods. Buildings are looted and burned. Detroit police are beating – and sometimes shooting – people in the streets; hundreds upon hundreds more are arrested. A curfew is enacted; Michigan State Police and the National Guard are brought in.

A few days after the rioting starts, a singing group called the Dramatics wait to take the stage for what they believe will be their big break. But their big break is broken when nearby rioting necessitates evacuating the building; they make their way through war zone-esque streets in an effort to get home.

Lead singer Larry (Algee Smith, TV’s “The New Edition Story”) and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore, “Collateral Beauty”) decide to wait out the storm at the Algiers Motel. They wind up charming a pair of white girls named Julie (Hannah Murray, “The Chosen”) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever, “We Don’t Belong Here”) and meeting a few fellow travelers, including a recently-returned Vietnam veteran (Anthony Mackie, “Captain America: Civil War”) and an edgy, angry guy named Carl (Jason Mitchell, “Kong: Skull Island”) whose provocative prank involving a starter pistol brings tragedy to the Algiers.

The pistol shot leads to forces descending on the motel. A Detroit police officer named Krauss (Will Poulter, “War Machine”) – a hothead already under investigation for an earlier shooting – responds to the scene along with his partners. State Troopers and National Guardsmen show up as well, as does a security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega, “The Circle”) looking to find a way to defuse the situation.

He is unsuccessful.

Krauss and his cohorts engage in a series of violent efforts at coercion, filled with vile racial slurs, beatings and threats of murder. As time passes and it becomes clear that their efforts to find a “sniper” on whom they might pin blame for their behavior, the officers become increasingly desperate – and their presumed-guilty prisoners bear the brunt of their fear and rage.

In the end, three men are left dead in the Algiers – and it is up to a world that is sadly inadequate with regards to race to hold the responsible parties accountable. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the world struggles to do so.

“Detroit” is a gut-punch of a film, visceral and violent and claustrophobic. The sheer volume of injustices is astonishing, with wave after wave befalling people whose sole crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time while black. It is unrelenting, refusing to let up for a moment, resulting in an ever-rising tension that leaves you gasping even as events play out in a way the narrative has already predicted for you.

The full circumstances of the incident at the Algiers Motel remain unclear; there is much that isn’t known. What is known, however, is that three men were murdered that summer night in 1967. That much is clear.

Bigelow and Boal have fared well with this sort of historical dramatization in the past; the two together have a strong sense of the right way to tell a story like this one. Few filmmakers have the feel for boots-on-the-ground action that Bigelow does; dropping that sensibility into an urban (and American) location pays off in striking ways. Boal’s narrative instincts lend themselves well to this sort of moral and ethical bleakness. “Detroit” doesn’t display the nuance we saw from the pair’s earlier films, but one could argue that that’s the point – that straightforwardness informs the bleak power of the story.

That power is enhanced by some unbelievable performances. Boyega is great as an erstwhile de-escalator whose caution betrays him. Mackie’s intensity is electric; he crackles with indignant courage in every scene. Smith’s vocal skill is greater than his acting, but he handles himself well enough. Latimore, on the other hand, is the real deal; we’ll see more of him down the road. Murray, Dever, Mitchell – all great. Ditto Jack Reynor and Ben O’Toole as two of the offending officers.

And Poulter, well … Poulter is phenomenal. In his hands, Krauss becomes a monster, but a human one. He radiates a dark energy that is both unsettling and magnetic; his rage and disdain are unwavering, yet he never becomes cartoonish. It is an incredibly powerful performance that you’ll almost certainly never want to watch again.

In truth, that could be said about this entire movie. “Detroit” is a gripping, infuriating snapshot of a horrible and unjust blemish on our country’s history. It’s a harsh reminder that just 50 years ago, there were tanks in the streets of Detroit as buildings - and the rage of the people – burned.

[5 out of 5]

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