In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal masterfully expressed a helpless sense of tension and hazard with The Hurt Locker, resulting in a monumental Oscar win against Bigelow's ex-husband, James Cameron, and the trivial plaudit of it being my favorite war film to date. In 2012, a year after the killing of Osama bin Laden, they tapped into the daunting, innate, post-9/11 fears of America, as well as its bold patriotism, with Zero Dark Thirty, a film that skillfully display that same tension-laced spirit, but with an added feeling of strength and strategy. In 2017, she retains these elements and introduces one more: fury. As shown in this recent cinematic endeavor, fury, at its apex, is not accumulated slowly. Fury, at its height, is an intrinsic emotion; human, valuable, and vital for change, or at least for issues to be brought to the forefront.
In 2017, she takes us back. To 50 years ago. To Detroit.
The film takes us to the beginning of the 12th Street Riot in Detroit, where an unlicensed club gets raided. Looting, thievery and chaos between the locals and the authorities ensue, which results in a cancelled Dramatics performance, leading to its passionate lead singer Larry Reed and his friend, Fred, staying at the Algiers Motel. After a guest shoots blanks to authorities guarding the motel from the outside, the police round up all black guests and two white prostitutes and are ruthlessly tormented, debased, ridiculed, and tortured by corrupt officer Phillip Krauss. The film centers on the terse "before", tumultuous "during," and the precarious "after" of the riot.
I just elaborated on the narrative for this movie, which is odd because, in execution, it's not particularly a very narrative movie. While there is a thread, a linear blueprint isn't the salient focus. Rather, it feels more like a seamless, stream-of-conscious, documentary-like progression of the events of the riot. I know that that is the nature of film; for events to happen with surprise, as life does. However, this truly feels like a massive plain, specifically laid out for the life of a incendiary incident to germinate each and every day. It is merely heightened for dramatic purposes.
While this film has been receiving relatively solid acclaim (an 83% of Rotten Tomatoes), this film has earned a fair amount of detractors. Aside from Armond White (I'm trying to forget him as much as you all are, so moving on), this film has been criticized for not only omitting crucial details of the riot, but it also has been accused of having an overall hyper-sensitive approach, sentimentally and simplistically depicting events and over-victimizing black people and thus degrading and strangely contorting their struggle. And...I see some, repeat some, of those traits.
Bigelow tends to delineate heroes, whether warped, irrepressibly flawed, antihero-ish heroes, such as Hurt Locker's William James, or outspoken, belligerently irresistible presences, such as Zero Dark Thirty's Maya. This film is not fraught with heroes, but it does present some, such as specific military officials, in a way that is oddly angelic. Additionally, certain lines of dialogue, particularly a pleading line by Julie Ann, one of the prostitutes, do strike a note of excessive, ennobled pity and sweeping, simple sanctimony. HOWEVER, as far as it having that tone as a whole, fuck no!
Seriously, *spoilers*, the case involved graphic, appalling torture and mistreatment to an innocent group of people and was swiftly covered up, in the face of the holy spirit of social class and repugnant stances that are nepotistic toward the more privileged majority. Uh...sound familiar? Contrary to A.O. Scott's perspective, I feel that this is not a tale of "black helplessness or passivity," but a diorama to black reality. Even the final note of the film involving Larry singing a church song feels less like inspirational catharsis and more a bleak exhortation to sustain hope in the face of the ugly bludgeoning from the motley injustices they have and will face. Honestly, the summation of this can be seen in a scene at the Algiers Motel prior to the intervention of the police. Carl, the primer responsible for the incident, goes on a spiel to Julie Ann about being black in America, which happens to be the most impassioned, hardline, ferocious, and even most humorous scene of the film.
The characters range a gargantuan gamut of sensibilities and they are delivered with gritty, gut-wrenching performances. Algee Smith is a scintillating revelation as Larry, possessing a beautiful singing voice and lending a pensive, desperate vibe. The way he shows the unfolding of his arc, transforming from having an alacrity for stardom to a self-imposed need to retain and focus on his painful realities, is elegiacally enrapturing. I will, too, be damned if John Boyega has his time in the spotlight cruelly truncated because his performance as Melvin Dismukes, a security guard that tries to assuage the situation, is astonishing. He has the potential to be the next Denzel Washington. After all, he has that same rugged machismo and edgy warmth that commands your attention.
It also helps that the filmmakers bestowed unto him a stealthily serviceable character. In many ways, he is similar to Forest Whitaker's Butler: a genial man, who is a quasi-inspirational semi-bystander, with two different factors involved: weight and action. He is a security guard that ends up working alongside the police and National Guard, but he is the one force that wants to maintain safety and sanity during this racially incited bedlam, getting involved when it's situationally acceptable and convenient to do so, but also staying silent a lot, as not to exacerbate anybody. However, as the actual case proceeds, his rage, guilt, and helplessness beset him. He's one of the primary protagonists and yet he's never allowed to be fully heroic, which makes for an agonizing portrayal from Boyega.
However, the thief of the whole movie, of all the performances, is Will Poulter as Officer Phillip Krauss. I will most likely agitate the #OscarsSoWhite crowd by saying this about a movie with an overwhelmingly African-American cast, but I'm putting my Oscar ballot in for him. He fills to the brim with villainy, brutal hatred, and demonic self-interest. His cinematic transmogrification from innocuous teen roles to this despicable character is one of the most piquant and potent revelations since Mo'Nique's Oscar-winning turn in Precious. As well, his lack of physical maturity adds a deeper dimension to the character. His puerile appearance and actions serve as a perfect representation for immature adults that serve in the police or the Army as a subconscious method of sublimating a primal eagerness for power, for control, for, arguably, an insatiable thirst for blood. Additionally, the intro to his character initially exhibits him as the cop that is the closest to being on the side of the rioters. The juxtaposition of that with his subsequent actions leaves it to wonder if it was an off-kilter, deranged way to normalize and empower himself. It's a marvelous acting job.
Throughout the film, I was struggling whether which film was better: this or The Hurt Locker. I say that, because of an askew moment here and there and the fact that the first five minutes or so left me feeling rather cold, The Hurt Locker beats it by a overwhelmingly scant margin. Either way, the political contexts for both are staggering. Hurt Locker gained mainstream attention after the end of the Bush administration, which could give life to the argument that it's practically a morbidly droll allegory for the frivolousness of the Iraq War, with its lead almost reveling in his own slipshod, potentially destructive predilections. However, this film took me to a sundry of places. This is the most brutal, harrowing, pertinacious, frustrating, impetuous, apoplectic, loudest, tragic, angriest, and most uncomfortable film of 2017. It is also the best film of 2017 so far, a film utterly germane with current times. Every sound can be replicated by the disillusioned, aching voices of today. Without implementing or infusing any feminist iconography or dialogue into her films, she has become the most feminist director around right now, with more balls than many of her male compadres.
Given our current President's distasteful, egregious rhetoric, maybe we still are in 1967. But hey, we got to make sure we take both sides into account, right? Them damn alt-lefters!
RATING: Four out of four stars!