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Laramie Movie Scope: Detroit

Tough to sit through, but good for you

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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August 8, 2017 -- Watching Detroit is kind of like eating broccoli, you know it is good for you to see how racism divides this country, but it is a lot more pleasant to avoid the subject if you can. White people like me can avoid the subject because we don't have to live with it. We don't get hassled by the police. We don't get discriminated against by employers. We don't get redlined out of neighborhoods we want to live in by real estate marketers and zoning regulations.

It has been 50 years since the Detroit race riots depicted in this film, yet the wage disparity between whites and blacks in this country remains as lopsided now as it was then. Blacks commit less than 40 percent of major crimes in this country, yet are incarcerated at rates of five to 10 times the rates of white inmates in many state prisons. Police shootings of unarmed blacks is still a problem and it still goes unpunished all the time. People of color live this reality, while many whites deny these facts. It is easier to pretend that racisim is confined to the past.

The film, directed by Kathryn Bigalow and written by Mark Boal (“Zero Dark Thirty”) is largely a dramatization of “The Algiers Motel Incident” (the subject of a book of the same name written by John Hersey) which took place on July 25–26, 1967 during the nearby 12th Street Riot in Detroit. The movie starts out with scenes showing how the 12th Street riot began, with police arresting a large number of people at an unlicensed after-hours bar, surrounded by an angry mob.

A number of people caught up in the violence ended up in the nearby Algiers Motel. The incident started when Carl Cooper (played by Jason Mitchell of “Straight Outta Compton”) started playing around with a small starter pistol firing blanks. Nearby police and National Guard troops, thinking they were under fire from a sniper, fired back at the motel. Soon, Cooper was dead. In the hours that followed, more motel patrons would die and others would be beaten while in police custody, all in an attempt to find a non-existent sniper. No gun was ever found, not even Cooper's tiny starter pistol.

Detroit policeman Philip Krauss (played by Will Poulter of “The Revenant”) is shown killing an unarmed fleeing rioter by shooting him in the back prior to the Algiers Motel Incident. He is threatened with murder charges by a superior officer in connection with this shooting. Krauss and fellow officer Flynn (Ben O'Toole of “Hacksaw Ridge”) do most of the damage at the Algiers Motel, trying to beat confessions out of suspects and by using scare tactics, like pretending to kill suspects in order to get other suspects to talk. Police never found the gun and never got a confession, but suspects were beaten, and three of them died.

Among the suspects is Larry Reed (Algee Smith of “Earth to Echo”) the lead singer in The Dramatics, a Detroit singing group trying to make the big time. Just as the Dramatics are about to get on stage during a music revue in a big Detroit theater, the theater is closed by police order because of the riot. Reed and his friend, Fred (Jacob Latimore), both escape the riot, ending up at the Algiers Motel. The film shows the traumatic effect the incident had on Reed's life.

Two of the most recognizable black actors to white audiences are probably Anthony Mackie, who plays suspect Robert Greene (a Vietnam War veteran) and John Boyega, who plays security guard Melvin Dismukes (unlike some character names used in this film, Greene and Dismukes are the real names of the people depicted). Mackie is best known for his role as the superhero Falcon in the Marvel films “Captain America the Winter Soldier,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Ant-Man.” Boyega is best known for his depiction of the character Finn in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

The film starts out with illustrations of the history leading up to this incident. This is followed by showing characters earlier in the day leading up to the Algiers Motel Incident. The film steadily builds tension as it goes along until the last suspect is murdered by police. Then we see the trials of some of those charged. The trial of Melvin Dismukes is not shown, but the case must have been pretty weak, since he, a black man, was acquitted by an all-white jury after a deliberation lasting less than 15 minutes. In the film, Dismukes is portrayed as an innocent man, caught up in a terrible series of events.

What really happened at the Algiers Motel that night? Some say there are as many versions of the incident as there are witnesses. Two of the police officers involved in the incident confessed to murder. They were later acquitted of all charges. The confessions were ruled inadmissable in court because the policemen did not first receive Miranda warnings.

This is a very depressing movie because it does show people at their worst, murdering people and getting away with it, and others who could have helped just stand by and let atrocities happen. The film does show that some people invovled in the incident did help, however, and that is encouraging, although one man gets murdered for telling the truth about what happened.

It would be nice to think these kinds of incidents are behind us, but they are not, and the current Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, seems bent on bringing back this corrupt kind of “law and order” from 50 to over 100 years ago, by trying to empower police to act now as they did back then. On the other hand, the riots nowadays don't seem quite as bad as the riots 50 years ago. At least I think they are smaller in scale.

So, it's a broccoli movie all right, and it put me through the wringer. The performances are powerful, especially by Algee Smith, Will Poulter and Anthony Mackie. I watched it at a theater in Laramie, a town with a very small black population. I was the only person in the audience. I don't expect this film to do much business here, but maybe it will get some Academy nominations. It probably deserves to get some. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2017 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)