Norman Jewison’s Best Picture Oscar winner In the Heat of the Night, a searing and sadly timeless study of race relations through the prism of a murder investigation in a small Southern town, had its New York premiere August 2, 1967 — about the same time the infamous Detroit riots took place. It also was during the same exact week where, 50 years later, a new movie putting the spotlight on that time is set to open. I have seen Jewison’s powerful and enlightening movie several times since, most recently when it opened the TCM Classic Film Festival in April with star Sidney Poitier and Jewison among those present. It still holds up as a classic depiction of the racial divide in this country, even as it came from a white director and writer.
Some things never change, and now director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have collaborated for the third time with Detroit, after their superb The Hurt Locker winning and Zero Dark Thirty nominated for Best Picture Oscars. Unlike Jewison’s film, I don’t think I will be revisiting this undeniably well-intentioned, sometimes riveting, but unnerving movie anytime soon. As I say in my video review above, it is an unrelenting and gruesome horror film of a different sort, and one that will be difficult for many audiences to digest.
Bigelow shoots it in verite style and doesn’t let go, putting us right in the middle of a horrendous event. She is simply one of the best directors of action out there and consistently has been throughout a career that has made her the only woman to win the Best Director Oscar. Her partnership with Boal on now three socially conscious films is admirable to say the least. She delivers the goods, but in the case of Detroit, the pair’s narrow concentration on one incident triggered by the riots fails to shine a larger light on the bigger picture that is still plaguing our inner cities. The perfect timing for something illuminating about the root causes of this unrest and bigotry, alive now as much as ever, would make for a fascinating movie and is needed. That, sadly, is not the one they have made here, where everyone is beaten up by the end — both on screen and in the audience. It will test your endurance, and likely was designed to do just that.
The actual riots are given relatively short shrift in the first part of the film, leading instead to an incident that occurred at Detroit’s Algiers Motel the night of July 25-26, 1967, when three black civilians were murdered and seven other black men, along with two white women, were mercilessly tortured and beaten against a wall by, as presented here, the most vile and racist law enforcement individuals the movies could possibly portray. If the endless middle section of this film (about 40 minutes worth) of repeated violent acts and deaths happened in the way this film claims, it truly was a dark day for humanity. Fifty years later, Bigelow and Boal have chosen to bring it back as a reminder that bigotry, in any form, is a bad thing. Unfortunately there’s no attempt to say anything that any reasonable and compassionate human being doesn’t already know, and that is a shame considering the talent involved with this project. There’s just no hope, no enlightenment after a grueling, overlong 143 minutes. You feel drained and sad.
The white cops, whose real names are not used for the most part, and black security guard (nicely played as the conscience of the operation by John Boyega), all were acquitted. The filmmakers have slapped a disclaimer onto the end of the film to say that because of varying accounts of what actually occurred that night, they have based this on their own meticulous research and eyewitness accounts (decades later, in many cases) of those who lived through it. John Hersey wrote a book at the time called The Algiers Motel Incident that includes many eyewitness accounts by people who agreed to be interviewed with the condition that it never would be sold for use as a movie, thus Boal’s own investigative research became the vehicle for this screenplay.
At its center a young, green and increasingly racist cop (Will Poulter) whose life and career spirals out of control after he (unwittingly?) shoots a running young black man in the back, leading to the man’s death. Inexplicably and incredibly sent back on duty, in uniform, on to the streets and told to “stay calm” by his superior even as he informs him he is recommending murder charges (!), the cop leads the brigade of other equally unhinged racist cops and others who have moved in to quell the riots in staging this massacre at Algiers after they hear shots coming from a room in the area. It reportedly was from a toy gun (though it sounds very real in this film’s expert sound mix) from a trouble-making young black man who becomes their first victim. But things get a lot worse from there, especially when the cops discover the two white women partying outside of their race. What follows is about as lurid as it gets, and about as tragic.
The pulsating, take-no-prisoners nature of Bigelow’s docudramatic style is unforgiving and about as hard to watch as anything onscreen in a while. We are trapped in this place along with the victims and perpetrators. The courtroom scenes that wrap up the film pale by comparison, almost as if the director got bored. They feel rushed, by the numbers and thinly developed. Obviously the real story the filmmakers wanted to tell was in that motel that night. At the very least they have a movie, admirable in its intentions, that ultimately doesn’t rise to a higher plane. Still, it is destined to be talked about, dissected and debated, and in this age of disposable entertainment, that is a very good thing no matter where you stand on the actual impact of this film.
Performances are terrific across the board with Algee Smith, as a member of R&B group the Dramatics who takes a room at the Algiers to escape the riot, a real star in the making. Poulter, as the epitome of evil. is superb as well. Excellent work also comes from Anthony Mackie as usual, Boyega as a man caught up in a situation he can’t make sense of, Jacob Lattimore, Jason Mitchell and Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray as the two girls who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. John Krasinski as the defense lawyer is a fine actor wasted here. Cinematography from Barry Aykroyd is top-notch, and the soundtrack can’t be beat.
Producers in addition to Boal and Bigelow are Matthew Budman, Colin Wilson and Megan Ellison, whose Annapurna Pictures is releasing the film — the first for its distribution pipeline. It opens July 28 in 10 cities, including a number of racial hot spots (probably not a coincidence) such as Detroit, Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles Chicago, D.C. and Atlanta, followed by a wide rollout the following week.
Do you plan to see Detroit? Let us know what you think.