Thursday, August 3, 2017

When the police become torturers

Detroit immerses us in a brutal racist incident that took place during the city's 1967 riot.
I found it impossible to watch Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit and not be flooded by a complex torrent of reactions to the movie's undeniable visceral power. Bigelow takes an unflinching look at a little known racist incident that took place during the Detroit riots of 1967. Police brutality and racism are awful, of course, but how much of it do we need to see before that point effectively has been made?

That's a question that every moviegoer will have to answer for his or herself, but -- I wondered, if in trying for unblinking honesty, Bigelow hadn't sometimes mistake intensity for insight.

Bigelow divides her movie into three unequal parts. She begins with an appropriately frenzied approach to the Detroit riots, settles into a disturbing and violent example of racist brutality, and then -- as if to temper the horror of what we've been watching -- spins out a courtroom finale in which the offending police officers are brought to trial.

Bigelow bases her movie on a true story, chronicled in a 1968 book by John Hersey, The Algiers Motel Incident. Events at the Algiers were a kind of adjunct to the Detroit riots that began when the police raided an after-hours bar frequented by black patrons.

No matter what side of the political divide on which you fall, it's nearly impossible to watch Detroit without making references to the climate between black communities and police forces that have been infected by institutional racism -- not only in 1967, but in 2017.

At the Algiers Motel, several young black men, two white women, several police officers and a black security guard are thrown together during the heat of the riot. The police officers -- led by a racist cop (Will Poulter) -- terrorize their captives in ways that result in psychological trauma and, ultimately, killing. By the end of the night, three young black men are dead.

From the outset, we've tagged Poulter's Krauss as an undisguised racist. Even before the incident at the Algiers, he goes unpunished for shooting an unarmed black man in the back.

The movie's segments in the Algiers Motel are on a par with the kind of sustained cruelty we sometimes see in horror films. Of course, torture is precisely what the police are doing to their innocent victims, perpetrating an invisible slice of horror during the intensely pressurized atmosphere of a violent outburst that made Detroit resemble a war zone.

During this portion of the film, the police line their victims against the wall, singling them out for humiliation, along with two white women (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) who were partying at the Algiers. The cops accuse the women of being prostitutes, an opinion they seem to justify only because the women have been hanging around black men.

Three figures stand out among the black men, the lead singer of a group called The Dramatics (Algee Smith), a military veteran recently returned from Vietnam (Anthony Mackie) and a friend of Smith's character (Nathan Davis Jr.).

No one is more conflicted about what's happening at the Algiers than John Boyega's Dismukes, a security guard sent by his employer to protect a store from looting. Dismukes becomes caught up in the Algiers' drama. He's a law-and-order guy, but he's not blind to the racism that's being displayed by out-of-control cops.

All of this begins because the cops believe that someone in the motel fired a gun at them. As it turns out, the gun was a starter pistol fired by a young man (Jason Mitchell) who had been trying to frighten a small gathering at the Algiers by mimicking the way white policemen treat blacks. To make his act more convincing, Mitchell's character draws the fake gun, eventually firing it out a window.

I don't want to leave the impression that Detroit proceeds entirely without nuance. In the movie's later going, we meet cops who are appalled by what happened at the Algiers. We sometimes see the movie's brutal but self-serving cops trying to find a way out of the situation they've created. Not every black character is willing to stand up for truth when it comes to exposing the viciousness to which they've been subjected.

Bigelow may want us to understand that the cops have deluded themselves into believing that abuse is not only justifiable but a privilege of their positions of authority. Once the firebombs start flying, these policemen seem to think they've been granted license to do anything.

All of this unfolds after a prologue featuring paintings by Jacob Lawrence that try to provide some context for the riots: northward migration by blacks devolved into segregated housing projects and high unemployment. That's the gist.

Later, we'll see news clips of George W. Romney and President Lyndon Johnson, political leaders who remind us that what we're witnessing springs from a reality; the government apparatus geared up to meet what it saw as the challenge of unleashed fury and wanton destruction.

Written by Mark Boal, who also wrote Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit might have been even more daring had it taken some time to show us the pre-riot atmosphere in the Detroit police department, the conditions that presumably made Poulter's character possible.

As the movie unfolded, I found myself wondering how a director as meticulous as Sidney Lumet (Prince of the City) would have handled such a volatile story.

It's also worth remembering that Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing already made a statement about the ways in which racial violence can be kindled.

So a confession: At various points during events at the Algiers Motel, I wondered what Bigelow was trying to accomplish by allowing them to drag on so long.

Other points are more economically made. Mackie portrays a Marine who recently returned from Vietnam. Having served his country offers him no protection from the wrath of the police.
That's a powerful observation.

It also helps to remember that many of the current and well-publicized incidents of questionable police conduct did not take place under violent duress; racism hardly needs riots as an excuse to express itself. Sometimes, all it takes is a traffic stop.

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