Detroit: Bigelow confronts racial turmoil in tale of ’67 riots

Kathryn Bigelow is used to telling stories about the fragile nature of war.

Her last two films – 2009’s Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker” and 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty” – examine the immense pressure and brutality felt by those living in conflict zones, powder-kegs ripe to explode in violence at any moment.

With her first film in five years, “Detroit,” the Academy Award winning director examines conflict closer to home.

Taking on the racially charged 12th Street Riots in 1967, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal place themselves at the heart of one of the deadliest, most destructive events in American history.

“Detroit” is the story of three men – two African-American and one white – whose paths and circumstances brought them to the Algiers Hotel where the ensuing nightmare reflects an ominous resonance to modern times.

The second act of “Detroit” plays out like a psychological horror show as Detroit beat cops verbally and physically terrorize hotel guests, ultimately resulting in multiple fatalities. It’s in this most gruesome middle section of the film that Bigelow does her best work, balancing multiple narratives in a somber display of voyeurism.

“Detroit” opens and closes rocky as Bigelow attempts to contextualize the events at the Algiers Hotel.

Within the well-crafted 20-minute opening of the film, it’s hard for viewers to understand or identify with any of the major players as things keep whipping from storyline to storyline. The opposite can be said for the unnecessarily elongated ending where events play out in bland, monochromatic fashion.

Where “Detroit” shines the most is in its deep, talented cast that provides knockout performance after knockout performance.

There’s a subtle brilliance in the way Will Poulter approaches the role of Krauss, the film’s primary antagonist that approaches ‘racist boogeyman’ but never quite falls over into caricature. Poulter’s eyes often boil over in a manic rage as Krauss attempts to coerce confessions. It’s in the quieter moments, however, that the performance really shines as Poulter is able to internally justify Krauss’s unjustifiable actions, expressing Krauss’s inner demons with cold, glazed-over stares that chill audiences’ bones.

Poulter’s brash, demonic performance is counter-balanced nicely by John Boyega’s even-keeled, measured turn as Dismukes, a young African-American security guard who gets caught in the crossfire while trying to douse racial tensions. Though much of the performance is internalized, Boyega takes great care to show audiences Dismukes’ inner monologue as he struggles with the events unfolding around him.

Algee Smith is a revelation as Larry, lead singer of an upstart Motown group called The Dramatics who tries to escape rioting on the streets of Detroit by hiding out at the Algiers. Smith is able to capture each and every moment within “Detroit” with such a pure energy and emotional authenticity that his performance resonates with audiences and places viewers in Larry’s shoes beautifully.

Bigelow assembles a terrific ensemble cast to fill out the rich, multi-layered story including top performances from Anthony Mackie as a returning Vietnam veteran thrust into Detroit’s racial divide, Jason Mitchell as a brash teen antagonizing the police and Jacob Latimore as Larry’s best friend and band manager Fred.

There’s a smooth ease to cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s artful style, which represents the frantic nature of on-screen events with “head-on-a-swivel” precision. Yet at the same time, “Detroit” never has the herky-jerky camera frenzy popular in action films. More so than most movies today, the cinematography of “Detroit” enhances and heightens the dramatic tension as it weaves in and out of the fray with precision.

Releasing “Detroit” in early August does no favors to its chances for award season success as it will likely be far from the minds of voters come this fall. But make no mistake, Bigelow’s film is a captivating and horrifying film worthy of a Best Picture nomination and acting nods for Poulter and Smith.

While not a flawless movie, “Detroit” represents the gritty, visceral filmmaking sorely needed from major studios.

This award-worthy film is a terrific change of pace film sure to grip audiences and provoke needed discussion about the world in which we live in.

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