This Is a Movie Review: ‘Detroit’ is a Nauseatingly Intense Portrait of Abuse of Power

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Annapurna Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2017.

Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Jason Mitchell, Jacob Latimore, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, John Krasinski

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Running Time: 143 Minutes

Rating: R for a Real-Life Waking Nightmare

Release Date: July 28, 2017 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide August 4, 2017

To sum up my feelings on Detroit, I feel compelled to borrow from Trevor Noah’s take on the footage of the Philando Castile shooting: I can’t really recommend that anyone watch it, even though I think everyone needs to see it. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s dramatization of the 1967 Algiers Motel incident is often sickening and rarely allows for any catharsis, even in its slower moments. Even the epilogue title cards, which typically let some light shine through and or at least offer some hope, are just as depressing. The ending left me on edge, about to break down and cry. The point of Detroit is not depression porn, or value posturing, but capturing a moment of a social ill that is not just a moment but a lingering epidemic. Its message needs to be heard, and it is presented in a manner in which it cannot be ignored.

Going into Detroit, I knew little about the specifics of this incident beyond its racial overtones. But soon enough the truth became depressingly obvious. As the film descends into the pit of its most harrowing moments, it becomes clearer and clearer what sort of terrible ending it is headed towards. We have seen this absence of redemption and justice again and again. The smallest of comforts can be drawn from the fact that this is not a new tragedy, but that only leads to the realization that we may be suffering through a never-ending cycle of violence.

Some of the details of the real-life July 1967 event remain in dispute, and the film makes sure to acknowledge that. What is clear, though, is that three black men died that night and that nine other motel residents – seven more black men and two white women – were badly beaten. Without the ubiquitous recording technology of today, it is impossible to know exactly what happened, but it is not hard to accept Detroit’s version of events.

The narrative unfolds in three portions. The opening is a survey of the racial tension of the country in general and Detroit specifically, with an animated prologue explaining how the end of Civil War and its resulting migratory patterns led to this crisis. The conclusion is a pointedly abrupt courtroom drama. But the significant majority is the middle, which reenacts the night at a seemingly real-time pace. It plays like a horror film, with the Detroit police as the home invaders. The Michigan State Police and National Guard offer some chances to escape the terror, but only in a way that protects themselves and provides no long-term relief.

Detroit features a notably large cast for such a painfully intimate setting, and each individual is given their moment to illustrate the major themes. As a security guard attempting to aid both the police and the victims, John Boyega is the personification of internal conflict. As a brazenly, sadistically racist officer, Will Poulter makes it difficult to hold on to the belief that no person is intrinsically evil. A certain well-known actor shows up late and plays strikingly against type as the officers’ lawyer. And Algee Smith has a star turn as one of the victims. He plays Cleveland Larry Reed, a singer attempting to break through with up-and-coming R&B group The Dramatics. You can see his soul withering away at every turn, but just enough brightness shines through on his face to suggest that maybe, just maybe, a happy future could be in store.

Detroit is Recommended If You Like: Fruitvale Station, Home Invasion Horror, Getting Righteously Angry

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Death “Games”

This Is a Movie Review: Sleight

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This review was originally published on News Cult in April 2017.

Starring: Jacob Latimore, Seychelle Gabriel, Storm Reid, Sasheer Zamata, Dulé Hill

Director: J.D. Dillard

Running Time: 89 Minutes

Rating: R for the Bloody Realities of Drug Dealing

Release Date: April 28, 2017

A young man hustles his way around Los Angeles street corners using his prowess in simple, but stunningly original magic tricks. Cards hover in the air and transport through glass windows. These are not the nonsensical shenanigans of Now You See Me. They are more akin to the weirdly practical effects of The Prestige that require a magical degree of dedication. An early peek at a metal disk implanted on the magician’s arm provides a hint of what is going on. Is he the result of secret government experimentation? Has he procured some rogue alien technology? Is this a stealth X-Men movie?

Sleight does not show his full hand right away, mainly because it is so crowded by the genre mish-mash. The light sci-fi added to the action illusions is already enough of a hybrid, but this is also a pretty full-blown coming-of-age romance and an even fuller-blown inner-city crime drama.  Bo (Jacob Latimore), the magician, is looking after his little sister Tina (Storm Reid) in the wake of their mother’s death. He is trying to move them on to a better life, and trying to help his girlfriend Holly (Seychelle Gabriel) out of an abusive parental relationship. Since magic only brings in relatively chump change, he is deep in some heavy drug dealing. He is fine with the hustle, but the dirty work makes him (literally) sick.

The satisfying unpredictability extends to the performances. It is always a joy to witness the sort of naturalistic interplay that Latimore and Gabriel display in their budding romance. This is the sort of tone that appears easy, but its rarity proves otherwise. There are also a couple of comedic actors playing rousingly against type. SNL’s Sasheer Zamata is nearly unrecognizable as a trusty neighbor, and veteran supporting player Brandon Johnson (Rick and Morty, NTSF:SD:SUV::) revels as the muscle in a criminal enterprise. But most stunning of all is Dulé Hill as one of L.A.’s top drug barons. The crowd at the screening I went to was rightly impressed but also eager to see him return to the friendlier TV roles (The West Wing, Psych) that made him famous.

Sleight slips up a bit in its last act by falling into the trap of cliché conflicts. Bo lets Tina go off on our own at a point when he knows their lives are the most in danger they have ever been. For a film that has been so sure-footed up to this point, such a lapse in judgment is frankly mindboggling. Furthermore, the genre mix is not handled perfectly, with certain story threads dropped for large chunks of the running time. (It is a good thing the image of the arm implant is so striking, because otherwise you are liable to forget about it entirely.) The ambition on display here makes a mere hour and a half a little unwieldy. But while Sleight wobbles a bit, it ultimately sticks the landing with a thrilling, uncompromising ending. The story mechanics are rusty, but the tricks are unprecedented.

Sleight is Recommended If You Like: Chronicle, The Prestige, Attack the Block

Grade: 3 out of 5 Electromagnets