Greg Eichelberger reviews "Detroit" (2017)

Greg Eichelberger
Staff Writer

Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") again teams with writer Mark Boal ("Hurt Locker," "Zero Dark Thirty") to migrate from a purely military action film to create a powerful, but flawed tale of murders in the midst of one of this nation's most disastrous civil unrests in the newest release, "Detroit." The picture is "based on true incidents," but there are enough holes in this story to cause not only outrage at many of the scenes, as well as some very blatant and problematic question within.
First, however, let's get to the plot: It's a steamy, sticky summer night in Detroit, Michigan in July 1967, and while sweet music from the Doors, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the Rascals and Temptations swells in the background, members of the police force (led by a black detective) busts a late-night party where gambling and prostitution are taking place on 12th Street.
An animated brief informs us, the audience, that in the early years of the 20th century and continuing after World War I, the migration of blacks from the South was at an all-time high, filling Northern cities and displacing many white employees who would not work as cheaply. Fear not, however, because after WWII, whites began their own migration โ€” to the suburbs โ€” taking away jobs from African-American workers.
For decades, squeezed into dirty, over-populated, crime-ridden slums (or more accurately, "ghettos"), the largely minority population finally explodes, goaded by a series of factors including police brutality, desperate poverty, racism, unbelievable frustration and yes, a certain greedy and violent criminal element, a full-scale riot begins.
Young people, who may not even remember the Los Angeles riots of 1992, certainly have NO idea about the race riots and unrest of the mid-1960s in cities like Harlem, Newark, N.J. and Watts (in the Los Angeles area), and will no doubt find these sequences fascinating with one incident building into a week of looting (there's definitely no political correctness here as angry young black men, some women and some whites are shown throwing cinder blocks, rocks and Molotov cocktails, breaking into stores and stealing whatever they can get their hands on).
With all of this, we view actual footage of Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson, Michigan Gov. George Romney (2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney's father) and others decrying the lawlessness and even calling in the state's National Guard.
Meanwhile, the young local Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso, "Fast & Furious 6"), tries to calm the crowd, but he, too, is booed loudly and chased out of the area.
With the pissed-off crowd not even listening to their own people, the "intruding" caucasian cops and soldiers are certainly not welcome during this conflict. The story then concentrates on three DPD officers, the unbelievably corrupt Krauss (Will Poulter, "War Machine," "The Revenant"), the arrogant racist/misogynostic Flynn (Ben O'Toole, "The Water Diviner") and shy and stupid Demens (Jack Reynor, "Free Fire," the officers real names are NOT used like other characters in this movie, by the way), who are part of a group of law enforcement officers who respond to an alleged sniper incident and find themselves WAY over their heads.
Yes, the rioters were not content with just starting conflagrations in the Detroit riots, they also tried to keep (completely innocent) firefighters from putting them out by shooting from windows and roofs of buildings). Smart-assed drug addict, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell, "Kong: Skull Island," the upcoming "Disaster Artist"), ticked off about what is going on, fires a starter's pistol at the authorities from the window of a hotel. In the middle of such unrest, police, state troopers and military personnel were in no mood to be shot at โ€” even with a fake gun.
They immediately surround the Algiers Hotel, about a mile east of where the trouble began, capture a group of black men (as well as a pair of white prostitutes, Hannah Murray, "Game Of Thrones" and Kaitlyn Dever, "We Don't Belong Here"). In an effort to get a (quick) confession, Krauss, who is already under investigation for the shotgun death of a looter, then kills Cooper (and then plants a knife by the corpse - an O.J. Simpson trial flashback, anyone?) who attempted to flee the scene.
During these moments, the brutality exhibited by the police is so prolonged and ugly that it makes the Rodney King beating look like a child's birthday party. The captives are punched, kicked, slapped, cursed at, threatened with death and thrown against the wall, including the women and a returning Vietnam veteran, Anthony Mackie, "The Hurt Locker," "Marshall," "Captain America: Civil War." Another prisoner turns out to be Larry Reed (Algee Reed, "Earth To Echo," the "Saints & Sinners" TV series), the lead singer of the soul/R&B group, the Dramatics ("What You See, Is What You Get").
Three end up dead (one death has never been explained, the other two have been attributed to "justifiable homicide" or "self-defense"), but the overwhelming violence here is so unending that it soon becomes numbing and we as an audience find it very difficult to maintain empathy.
These are scenes of sheer, graphic intimidation, sexual assault, mental abuse and racism that will not only educate young people, but actually make some viewers believe this story is carved in stone.
Plus, with current trials of cops involved in deaths of blacks throughout the country, make it seem like all police official are evil, mindless, vicious killers. It's a story of Detroit, 1967, but an allegory of contemporary situations.
Perhaps that is Bigelow's intention, but the terror here is so far over the top, many will wonder if this is an overblown fabrication of what actually took place, including a game in which the suspects were taken into a room by an officer and forced to pretend they were shot.
The movie clearly admits many incidents are not exactly 100 percent factual, but basically word of mouth descriptions.
Later, charges of felonious assault, conspiracy, murder, and conspiracy to commit civil rights abuse were filed against three officers and one private security guard, Melvin Dismukes, played by John Boyega ("Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens"). Despite being charged with the other men in this case, the film attempts to make Dismukes' character completely innocent here while the white cops are portrayed as guilty as sin, so it's difficult to know just what to believe in "Detroit."
After the real trial concluded, the sham "Citywide Citizens' Action Committee," was formed by a coalition of Detroit black leaders. They actually held a tribunal of their own, convicting the officers and even Dismukes, for their roles in the murders and sentenced them to "death."
The "jury" included novelist John Killens and activist Rosa Parks. Without revealing himself, Dismukes attended the tribunal. A few years later, ironically, Parks herself was robbed and savagely beaten by a young black drug addict, not a racist white policeman (hmmmm ...).
Despite some of the potholes and gaps in the narrative, the art direction (Greg Berry, "Suicide Squad," "Captain America: Civil War"), production design ("True Story," "Zero Dark Thirty") and cinematography (Barry Ackroyd, "Captain Phillips," "The Big Short") creates an amazing looking picture. The soundtrack music and period detail (men in pork pie hats, the cars and dress of the era, especially) is terrific.
It's too bad such license was taken with the real facts of the events portrayed here confusing what might have been a great straightforward story of our troubled past.
Grade: B-