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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’ tackles American racism

If you haven't yet see the film "Detroit," you might have questions about it. I try to address some of them in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

The riots that occurred in Detroit over five days in July 1967 were hardly the first such incidents in American history. Major cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles had seen similar outbreaks, and Detroit itself had been the site of a major three-day riot that took place in 1943.

Based on incidents such as those that happened a couple of years ago in Ferguson, Missouri, and more recently in Charlottesville, Virginia, racial strife in the United States is not going away anytime soon.

That overarching sense of history, as dark as it is, underscores everything in Kathryn Bigelow’s film “Detroit.” Written by Mark Boal, who teamed with Bigelow previously on “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Detroit” is a riveting, near-minute-by-minute look at both the beginnings of the turmoil and, even more closely, at one particular episode that occurred at a place called the Algiers Motel.

Just as Bigelow’s film overall can be seen as a larger statement about race relations in today’s America, her look at what happened at the Algiers is both her and Boal’s attempt to capture the worst of what happened in the city itself over those turbulent five days.

The filmmakers do so by keying on a number of individuals, some of whom are composites of actual historical figures, others of whom – including a trio of white Detroit police officers – have had their names changed. We follow the three officers as they patrol the burning streets, their resentment slowly growing. And we are introduced to a private black security guard whose intent is both to protect property and to act as peace-maker.

The racially mixed group congregating at the motel – which at first seems like an oasis separate from the fear and violence plaguing the adjacent streets – includes two black friends, Fred and Larry, who flirt with two young white women from Ohio, Karen and Julie.

The four join a larger group of people looking for a good time. Pretty soon, though, because of a mix of fear and adrenalin-induced rage, inflamed by a stupid if inherently harmless act, the Algiers becomes the place where all our principals end up. And the motel itself evolves into a cell of nothing less than torture and death.

Bigelow’s use of her cast is impressive, even if limited screen time means that no one actor has what amounts to a starring role. John Boyega, best known for his part in the latest “Star Wars” reboot, plays the security guard. But Will Poulter as the cop in command and Algee Smith as Larry are arguably more important in how Boal’s script plays out.

For his part, Boal has admitted that he used what he calls "poetic license" to dramatize the real story. But he insists that his script is "built on a sturdy base of journalism and history." As for Bigelow, she keeps things moving well enough, even if her trademark stylisms are lacking and the animated intro that provides a historical backdrop is fairly confounding.

Not nearly as confounding, though, as the ongoing fact of racism itself.

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