The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"DETROIT"

Detoit

On July 25, 1967, three young African-American men were murdered at the Algiers Hotel in Detroit, Michigan following race riots in the city. The tragedy occurred during a police raid on the building. The exact details of that night remain partially unknown, but director Katherine Bigalow and writer Mark Boal have attempted to put the pieces together using the facts that are known, combined with the recollections of those who were there. The result is Detroit, a searing look at the impact of racial injustice.

The film is essentially structured in a before/during/after format. The first half hour gives some perspective on how the riot started and how hostile the vibe was in those days. After that, there's roughly an hour showing how the members of a singing group, The Dramatics, make their way to the Algiers to escape the chaos in the streets. They quickly get pulled into the raid, where a racist cop, Krauss (We're the Millers' Will Poulter), lines everyone up and conducts a disturbing campaign of intimidation that directly leads to those deaths. A black security guard, Dismukes (John Boyega of Star Wars: The Force Awakens), also makes his way there and attempts to calm down simmering tensions. The final forty-five minutes show what happens when Krauss and his cohorts are put on trial for the killings.

The strength of Detroit is that it makes an epic story very intimate. Rather than trying to grapple with the totality of the riots, Bigalow and Boal (who previously made The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty together) focus primarily on putting you inside the Algiers. Having such a major chunk of the film play out in more or less real time was an ingenious decision, allowing the viewer to really feel how the tension keeps rising to the point where catastrophe becomes inevitable.

Along the way, you get to notice some fascinating, frightening little details. The cops look down on two white girls (Kaitlyn Deaver and Hannah Murray) they find hanging out with the black men, yet also treat them a little more sympathetically. The Dramatics' lead singer, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), sees not only his dream of performing go down the drain, but also his belief that being an entertainer can help bridge racial divides. Anthony Mackie plays Greene, an honorably-discharged veteran who can't even get a bit of respect from Krauss and crew, simply due to his skin color. Dismukes, meanwhile, starts off as a law-and-order type of guy, only to have his perspective begin to change once he sees how those things can be abused.

There's a lot to digest in Detroit. That means the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time flies by quickly because you're always engaged. Compelling performances help on that count. Everyone is good, but Boyega, Smith, and Poulter are the standouts. Boyega brings silent strength to the role of Dismukes, while Smith subtly and indelibly shows how Larry's optimism gradually recedes as his eyes are opened to some of the harsh realities taking place around him. Poulter isn't the most likely choice to play a racist cop, yet he's extremely effective. His boyish looks and charm serve as a stark counterpoint to the hatred that motivates Krauss.

Detroit's only hitch is that it rushes through the final act a bit. For Bigalow to really get the full scope of what she and Boal are going for, the movie should probably be about twenty or thirty minutes longer, so that the aftermath of the murders could be explored as deeply as possible. It's completely understandable that she felt 143 minutes was long enough for audiences. One can't escape the feeling that events are hurried after the Algiers incident, though.

That should not deter anyone from seeing the film. Detroit studiously avoids making any political connections to the current day. In so closely examining an event from America's past, though, it manages to speak volumes about our present.

( 1/2 out of four)


Detroit is rated R for strong violence and pervasive language. The running time is 2 hours and 23 minutes.


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