By Rich Cline
After The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal reteam to tell a true story from half a century ago, finding unnerving present-day resonance in the details. Using exhaustive research, they recount the events surrounding the Detroit riots for the first time, with characters who feel achingly real. It’s so impeccably assembled that it carries a strong punch to the gut.
It kicked off in July 1967 when white police raided a peaceful party, brutally arresting the blacks in attendance. People hit the streets in protest, and the officials cracked down. Caught up in this, aspiring Motown singer Larry (Algee Smith) and his pal Fred (Jacob Latimore) take refuge in the Algiers Motel, where they meet some other men (including Anthony Mackie and Jason Mitchell) and two white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever). Thinking they heard shots fired, local cop Krauss (Will Poulter) and his partners (Jack Reynor and Ben O’Toole) charge in, lining everyone up and menacing them brutally. Caught in the middle, security guard Melvin (John Boyega) tries to diffuse the situation without further aggravating these viciously bigoted policemen.
The film opens with a lucid prologue tracing the roots of America’s racial tensions in the continued segregation between inner-cities and suburbs, creating a police state with whites marginalising blacks. Bigelow’s direction and Boal’s script then recount events journalistically, throwing the audience right into the situation without character back-stories. This makes everything feel urgent and dangerous, a situation in which absolutely anything can happen. So when it leads to murder, we’re deeply horrified.
This style of filmmaking highlights the actors. Boyega is the entry point for the audience, a good guy caught in an impossible position. And the actor finds all kinds of unexpected textures in the role. Smith is the other sympathetic figure, a charming, talented man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Opposite them, the committed Poulter is a force of nature, channelling Krauss’ racism with unexpected complexity. It’s left to Reynor and O’Toole to add an undercurrent of doubt.
Pieced together from first-hand reports, the film is earthy and organic. And it’s impossible to watch this film without seeing it echo in events taking place now, half a century later. From anger in the street to injustice in the courtroom, several generations of Americans understand these kinds of shocking events far too well. So the film leaves us shaken with its reminder that we can’t just drift along hoping peace and equality happens by itself. Without stepping in to change the system, this will happen again and again.
Facts and Figures
Production compaines: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Annapurna Pictures, First Light Production
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Cast & Crew
Starring: John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes, Will Poulter as Philip Krauss, Algee Smith as Larry Reed, Jason Mitchell as Carl Cooper, John Krasinski as Attorney Auerbach, Anthony Mackie as Greene, Jacob Latimore as Fred Temple, Hannah Murray as Julie Ann, Kaitlyn Dever as Karen, Jack Reynor as Demens, Ben O’Toole as Flynn, Joseph David-Jones as Morris, Ephraim Sykes as Jimmy, Leon G. Thomas III as Darryl, Nathan Davis Jr. as Aubrey, Peyton ‘Alex’ Smith as Lee, Malcolm David Kelley as Michael Clark, Gbenga Akinnagbe as Aubrey Pollard Sr., Chris Chalk as Officer Frank, Jeremy Strong as Attorney Lang, Laz Alonso as John Conyers Jr., Austin Hébert as Warrant Officer Roberts, Miguel Pimentel as Malcolm, Kristopher Davis as Blind Pig Patron, Samira Wiley as Vanessa, Tyler James Williams as Leon, Glenn Fitzgerald as Homicide Detective Anderson, Mason Alban as Sergeant Jim, Bennett Deady as Police Officer Bill, Tokunbo Joshua Olumide as Dave, Benz Veal as Nate Conyers, Dennis Staroselsky as Detective Jones, Darren Goldstein as Detective Tanchuck, Zurin Villanueva as Martha, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley as Spencer, Joey Lawyer as National Guardsman Mike, Will Bouvier as National Guardsman Matthew, Morgan Rae as Linda Tucker, David A. Flannery as Police Officer David, Timothy John Smith as Foreman Pete, Kris Sidberry as Roberta Pollard, Lizan Mitchell as Ma Pollard, Chris Coy as Detective Thomas, Ato Blankson-Wood as Eddie, Henry Frost III as George, JJ Batteast as Philip