ZIENEZOMERTuesday 21 July
Kathryn Bigelow, USA 2017
While in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), a neighbourhood slowly drifts towards a riot, Detroit opens with an incendiary depiction of the incident that sparked the historic 1967 Detroit riots that scar the city to this day. While a ravishing Rosie Perez remains a sight to behold, dancing to Public Enemy during Lee’s movie’s opening credits, Detroit starts with an equally memorable opening sequence, an animated history lesson based on a modern masterpiece: the Migration Series (1940-41) by Jacob Lawrence, a series of 60 paintings depicting The Great Migration, in which the black southern population made its way north from 1916 on. By 1970, some six million had lifted roots, many heading from rural origins to industrial cities like Detroit, where soul music ruled in the 1960s, as depicted in Detroit by the Dramatics, whose lead singer at the time, Larry Reed (an excellent Algee Smith), had a key role to play.
When police raid an after-hours bar welcoming home black Vietnam veterans, events are set in motion culminating in five days of rioting in the summer of 1967. The rioting in turn sets the scene for a gruesome night in the Algiers Motel, which ultimately sees three innocent black teenage boys murdered at the hands of utterly out-of-control police. This harrowing second act to the movie is followed by a third: a tense courtroom drama featuring, as the accused, three white cops and a black security guard, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who was drawn into events at the Algiers. The cast is sublime, Kathryn Bigelow is in top form as director, and the script by Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) once again amply reflects his background as top-notch journalist.
In the mid 1960s, the Algiers Motel became black-owned, and during the riots initially served as a safe haven for a motley crew, all in their teens or twenties, including two 18-year-old Ohio school girls and a Vietnam veteran, alongside a few Dramatics members. When a motel guest fires a few blanks from a starter’s pistol, nervous National Guardsmen and police outside think they’re under sniper fire and cut loose, the first of many acts of violence they inflict in a mushrooming nightmare. They burst in, looking for a shooter and rifle, and quickly resort to escalating bullying, physical and mental abuse and terror tactics such as mock executions, led by good ole boy Philip Krauss, a hardcore racist intensely depicted by British actor Will Poulter (Midsommar), to frightening effect.
Having survived such a harrowing night, Larry Reed would soon turn to gospel music, missing out on the years of success the Dramatics would later experience at Motown. One of the two Ohio girls, Julie Hysell, acted as consultant on the film, by now a grandmother and faithful attendee of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for a quarter of a century. To this day, she still freezes up at the sound of police sirens. Bigelow uses contemporary news reports in her film, all brimming with disbelief that such events were possible. Asked whether she was the right person to make this movie, she replied: ‘I really, obviously, analyzed it long and hard, and I thought: “Am I the right person to make this film? Absolutely not.” On the other hand, this story needed to be told, and that kind of overrode any other hesitation. I heard this story, and thought, “All right, that’s fifty years ago, but it’s today, and it was yesterday, and it’s potentially tomorrow.”’ Now over fifty years on, too little has changed. Much too little. Black Lives Matter.
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