Racially charged drama about 1967 riots rings chillingly true today
Starring Algee Smith, John Boyega, Will Poulter & Anthony Mackie
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
The sweltering summer is about to get even hotter.
In Detroit, director Katheryn Bigelow turns up the heat on the 50th anniversary of one of the most deadly and destructive racially charged riots in our nation’s history.
Bigelow, who won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker (2008) and also directed the acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty (2012), recreates events that occurred in June 1967 with an ensemble cast and a wrenching sense of timeliness.
The movie points out the toxic recipe of white suburban flight, economic plight and tensions between black neighborhoods and police that were already in play, in Detroit and elsewhere, when the Motor City riots began with a police raid on an unlicensed bar in one of the city’s segregated, all-black neighborhoods.
The officers had a legal right to shut the place down, but did they have to “make an example” of everyone who was there? Herd them like cattle onto the street and into paddy wagons to take them jail? Feel up a female or two as they were “helping” them into the vehicles?
“What’d they do?! What’d they do?!” an onlooker cries out from the crowd—before a bottle flies through the air, then a Molotov cocktail. In seconds, looting has begun, and before morning, the entire neighborhood is on fire.
By day three, the Michigan governor has called in the national guard, and soldiers in jeeps and tanks patrol the streets. Neighborhood by neighborhood, the city becomes a war zone as African-American hopelessness, helplessness and rage erupt in widening spasms of destruction—and the police and the military strike back with sometimes lethal force.
In this simmering, scalding, suffocating cauldron of racial tension, we meet our central characters, whose lives soon intersect in an excruciating crux of circumstance.
Larry Reed (Algee Smith) is the lead singer of an up-and-coming, unsigned local vocal group, the Dramatics, who’s crushed when their big breakout gig at the Fox Theater is cancelled due to the riots. John Boyega (Finn from Star Wars: The Force Awakens) plays Melvin Dismukes, a straight-thinking overnight security guard. Will Poulter (from The Revenant, We’re The Millers and The Maze Runner) portrays Krauss, the overzealous patrolman who becomes a bully, a racist thug and a murderer.
Julie and Karen, two young women visiting from Ohio, are played by Hannah Murrah (Gilly from TV’s Game of Thrones) and Kaitlyn Dever (Eve on the sitcom Last Man Standing). Anthony Mackie is a U.S. Army veteran recently home from Viet Nam, now finding himself at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The singer, the security guard, the patrolman and the vet, along with Julie and Karen and several other characters, all end up at a bustling motel, where the movie takes a turn toward the horrific after police believe there’s a sniper hiding inside. What follows is a protracted, nightmarish sequence of brutality and intimidation as raw racism flexes its ugly muscle behind the authority of a badge.
Before the night is over, the bodies of three innocent victims lie dead in pools of their blood.
The movie does a tremendous job of recreating scorched, seared late-’60s Detroit. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, using handheld cameras much of the time, makes you feel like “you are there” in the sweat, smoke and the shaken, smashed and shattered lives.
In the modern era of cell phones and dashboard and body cams, with social media and television highlighting incidents of overreach and outrage—and #BlackLivesMatter rallying to spotlight America’s miserably ingrained culture of racial violence—the film’s themes of tragedy and injustice resonate with chilling contemporary relevance.
The film ends on a note of spiritual uplift about love overcoming hate, a message of hope and the hope of healing, one that rings across the distance of the ages.
And the message certainly rings across the 50 years since the events of Detroit, which painfully reminds us of how close to home this harrowing history lesson hits today.
In theaters Aug. 4, 2017