USA (143 mi) 2017 d: Kathryn Bigelow Official site
Sometimes the fact that Kathryn Bigelow used to be the wife of mega-blockbuster champion James Cameron is all too apparent, and this, unfortunately, is one of those times. Arguably the biggest misstep in Bigelow’s entire career, this film is a true embarrassment, with a promising subject matter, revisiting the Detroit rebellion of 1967, where the film’s release commemorates the 50th anniversary of the event. Yet this film reveals next to nothing about black life, or black history, offering little relevant commentary at all, and instead focuses the story on a lone racist cop and the havoc he wreaks over the course of 24 hours, culminating in a hysterically exaggerated incident where blacks at a motel are rounded up and terrorized, using intimidation techniques gone wrong that result in several murders, where this choice to single out a psychopathic policeman demeans the experience overall, where accuracy is undermined by questionable facts, making credibility an issue, all of which takes away attention from those residents who saw their homes and neighborhood go up in flames, leaving a destroyed city in ruins. In a desire to overinflate a particularly sadistic portrait of police brutality, Bigelow resorts to hand-held camera action techniques to heighten the interest, where her film amounts to exploitation, where bigger is better, a device her ex-husband used relentlessly throughout his career, but in this case it actually takes interest away from the victims, who appear bleeding and cowering against a wall while passively standing in a line, each thinking they may be the next victims, as the police, with their brazenly unlawful interrogation tactics, generate all the action through a prolonged sequence of inflicted terror. In a major misstep, Bigelow transfers all the power and interest to the police, who become the featured characters, dominating the screen time, allowing some to even sympathize with the cops, while the rest are minimized and silenced. Through a chaotic editing style, Bigelow’s lead-up never sticks with a single black character long enough for any of them to become sympathetic to the audience, instead there is a series of fractured events that are set amidst the chaos and anarchy of the developing riots, where a constant stream of new characters are introduced. This creates a narrative vacuum that only the police are allowed to fill. Unfortunately, in her zeal to dramatize the racial divide, she empowers the police with absolute autonomy, where the centerpiece of the film is not just inflated police hysteria, but an endlessly prolonged sequence taking up nearly half the film of unending psychopathic police torture on innocent victims, who feel as though they’ve been kidnapped, subjected to acts of murder, where the open display of white racist contempt towards blacks is not only sick, but psychotic, plumbing the depths of moral depravity. To suggest such barbaric criminal behavior occurred would be one thing, but to make it the featured aspect of the film is simply misguided, showing misplaced priorities. There isn’t an ounce of subtlety to this film, as Bigelow uses a hammer to the head, literally driving in her message like a pile driver. One could grow concussed after the experience.
No one is disputing an ugly history of police brutality, but Bigelow is the wrong director to deliver this message, as she seems immune to the black experience, unwilling or unable to tell their story. Even in the middle of one of the worst black riots in American history the story she chooses to tell almost exclusively involves the actions of white people. Coincidentally, if one takes a look at the film’s development team, the director, the writers, the producers, the editors, and the cinematographers — all are white. Nothing speaks to a lack of diversity like the creative team behind a film. And therein lies the problem. If ever a film cries out for the need to hire people of color when filming historically relevant events that are part of black history, this is it. How can Bigelow be so blind to what actually happened, as the riots and street rebellion only constitute a few minutes of screen time near the beginning and are largely ignored by her film. Completely missing is why it ever happened in the first place. The film looks for no answers, but instead delivers a heavy-handed message that feels like smug Hollywood sermonizing, as Detroit’s black voices are simply neglected. If a director wants to link these events to Ferguson, one of the most notorious recent flare-ups of police overreaction, much of it due to the militarization of the police forces, actually sending tanks into the streets (as they were in Detroit when they called in the National Guard) following a demonstrative public reaction to yet another police killing, then the common denominator or human interest story needs to be delivered from the resident’s point of view, as this is the story that Hollywood and the major news outlets never tell. For instance, the Black Lives Matter organization was formed after a constant stream of black fatalities from the hands of the police led to no change in police behavior, suggesting at least to police, black lives don’t matter, where in almost all instances the policemen responsible were not charged or held accountable for their behavior, so the pattern of routine police killings of young blacks continues. Yet from the police point of view (and the President, apparently, according to a similar argument made by his personal attorney, Joe Dowd, as reported in The New York Times, Trump Lawyer Forwards Email Echoing Secessionist Rhetoric - The ...), even today, the Black Lives Matter group is viewed as a terrorist organization (Since when is fighting against racial injustice an act of terrorism?), which shows just how out of touch they are with what the problem is, as young black suspects are clearly treated differently than whites, where a double standard is not only ingrained into routine police procedures, but also the criminal justice system. For instance, blacks are arrested at nearly 3 times the rate of other Americans, where the rate is even higher for murder (6 times) and robbery (8 times), while the likelihood of black males going to prison in their lifetime is 28% compared to 4% of white males, and if that black male drops out of high school, the number skyrockets to 50%, while at the moment it is estimated that the police kill a black man, woman, or child every 28 hours. Now this is fifty years “after” the events depicted in the film, suggesting little, if anything, has changed for black lives in America.
The opening few minutes of the film are the most inventive, an animated sequence based upon Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, a panel of 60 paintings produced in 1941, funded by the WPA, illustrating the mass exodus of blacks from the American South, lasting from 1916 until 1970, seeking refuge in cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit, not only in search of job opportunities, but escaping racism and the threat of lynchings, hoping to find freedom and a better life, but instead they were met with police brutality, harassment, redlining, and more violence, as racism and segregation were just as pernicious in the north, where in Detroit, elite police teams known as the Big Four notoriously cruised the streets, one uniformed officer and three guys in suits, big beefy guys riding around in Chrysler 300’s, reputedly hauling shotguns and other unauthorized weaponry in their trunks, like baseball bats, Billy clubs, and brass knuckles, making it their business to routinely stop and harass black people with impunity, regularly assaulting young teenage boys, inflicting serious damage, even resorting to stealing packs of cigarettes from underage kids. (“Got a pack for me today?”) Kids from all-black schools would travel to all-white suburban schools for sporting events, but the referees would make calls exclusively in favor of the white teams. Anyone who’s read The Autobiography of Malcolm X recalls that his pregnant mother (with Malcolm) and preacher father’s family home in Omaha, Nebraska was burned to the ground by the Klu Klux Klan riding on horseback, who surrounded the house with shotguns and rifles, shattering all the windows, forcing them to flee to Milwaukee, where they were awakened one night by pistol shots, as again the house was set ablaze. Next he lived for a while on the outskirts of East Lansing, Michigan, home of Michigan State University, which maintained a common practice with many other neighboring cities at the time, as no blacks were allowed on the city streets after dark. Detroit has a shameful pattern of housing discrimination that goes back nearly 100 years. When blacks moved into the city, whites moved to protected neighborhoods, where 80% of the Detroit property outside the inner city was subject to racial covenants, where white residents established neighborhood associations to strictly enforce the rules. Even as early as 1945, when a respectable middle class black family purchased a home in an all-white neighborhood in Detroit, the white neighbors sued, with the Wayne County Circuit Court siding with the white property owners, claiming the covenant forbid blacks from owning property in that neighborhood. And like Trump and his father who did the same with their property in New York, many landlords openly refused to rent to blacks, or charged them 20-40% more for rent than white renters. The government in Detroit enforced racially segregated public housing and the mayor used his veto power to block integration and public housing sites in white areas of the city. White homeowners traditionally greeted blacks who attempted to move into white neighborhoods with violence, throwing bricks through windows, breaking in and damaging personal possessions, burning effigies and crosses on their lawns, and basically harassing them endlessly until they left. This is the messy, untold story that Bigelow’s film ignores, as there’s a reason blacks in Detroit distrust the police in the mid 60’s (where the story begins), as they’re seen as an occupying force, with a history of routinely committing acts of violence against them and continually getting away with it. In other words, to police, white property interests, which they serve and protect, are diametrically opposed to black interests. It’s a saga that sounds very familiar to the carnage in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as the police protected the white neighborhoods and did little to stop the total destruction and utter annihilation of the black neighborhoods, which stayed underwater the longest, the last to have power and water restored, where little more than a third of the destroyed houses have been rebuilt, with empty lots on every block maintaining a ghostly presence even ten years afterwards. Sad but true.
In an opening police raid, busting into The Blind Pig, a black, after-hours drinking and gambling joint honoring returning Vietnam veterans, the customers scatter but escape routes are closed off, where they are quickly rounded up and hauled against an outside wall on the street until a succession of paddy wagons can take them all to jail, drawing the attention of people gathering on the street, who express their anger at the police, turning into an angry mob when delays prevent getting more transport vehicles, where language grows more abusive and people start throwing bottles and bricks at departing police cars, who barely escape unharmed, as it has already turned into an out-of-control disturbance, with people smashing into storefront windows and taking whatever they pleased, as there was no longer any visible police presence. A festive atmosphere continued on the streets well into the next day, as the badly outnumbered police couldn’t control the swelling pandemonium, as rowdiness continued and looting spread, where as many as 10,000 people were mingling on the street, with burglar alarms going off constantly and shattered glass could be seen everywhere, with looters growing in confidence, where initially food and liquor were targeted, but eventually people were seen carrying sofas down the street. A young Congressman John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat, climbs on top of a car using a bullhorn to encourage residents to calm down and go home, but he was met with a chorus of “No, no,” as bottles were thrown immediately afterwards. From the black perspective, it was difficult to be surprised or upset when all the fires, looting, and confrontations with police broke out, as many felt it was about time, as it expressed a long-existing, hidden rage that needed to be unleashed. From a white perspective, it makes no rational sense to burn down one’s own neighborhood, but the rage could simply not be contained, continuing over the next five days, with entire blocks in flames, where it looked like a bombed out war zone, with entire blocks reduced to rubble and ash, as 43 people died, over 2000 stores were looted, more than 2500 buildings either burned to the ground or damaged beyond repair, most never rebuilt, with nearly 400 families displaced and over 7000 arrests, as Republican Governor George Romney called in the State police and the National Guard, along with U.S. Army paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st airborne units, with heavily armed tanks arriving on the scene, sent in to stop the exploding anarchy from spreading into other neighborhoods. The bridges and tunnels to Canada were closed as the city essentially shut down. In this Armageddon, we see a couple policemen prowl the neighborhoods in a convertible, like they were out for a leisurely Sunday drive, where one of them, Officer Krauss (Will Poulter), pursues a looter carrying a bag of groceries, defying standing orders not to shoot as he fires two shotgun blasts in the man’s back as he attempts to flee, leaving him to bleed to death. When interviewed by superiors to explain his actions, he casually offers the explanation that police have little choice, as doing nothing allows rampant criminality to continue. He is allowed back on duty pending further investigation, but he will be personally responsible for several more murders before the night is done. In a two and a half hour movie, Bigelow uses the street rebellion purely as a backdrop to her larger story, adding another narrative thread about an up-and-coming R&B group called the Dramatics warming up backstage at Detroit’s historic Fox Theatre (not used, as a similar looking theater in Massachusetts is utilized instead), as they are expected to follow Martha & the Vandellas who are currently onstage performing Martha and the Vandellas - Nowhere To Run - YouTube (2:53). But instead, the theater closes due to security concerns based on the turmoil taking place on the streets outside, with lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) heartbroken that he missed his big chance, as Motown record executives were in the audience. Heading home afterwards, the bus is attacked by a mob throwing bottles through the windows, where they are forced to disperse, finding their way to the nearby Algiers Motel, which is like an oasis in the storm, with guests relaxing in a swimming pool, playing music, having cocktails, completely unaware there is a riot going on.
In another controversial move, Bigelow introduces a storyline of Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard holed up in a nearby store, hired to protect it from looters, a guy who ingratiates himself with the nearly all-white National Guard stationed just outside. He will become a silent witness to what happens next, though some will argue that he participated in the ensuing police atrocities, led by a return of Officer Krauss, who strangely finds his way to the Algiers Motel in response to reports of sniper fire coming from one of the motel windows. At the time, much was made of sniper fire, especially from military units, though there was scant evidence any more than a few snipers existed, yet it becomes a buzzword, as that was the excuse for unleashing heavy firepower directly into heavily populated neighborhoods. Many believe that the primarily all-white National Guard units had never set foot in the city of Detroit or any all-black neighborhoods before, becoming trigger-happy at every unfamiliar sound. With the camera finally content to remain at the Algiers, this becomes the predominate setting of the film, as a few more guests are introduced, including two out of state white girls, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), women who are written into the film as the director apparently identifies with them, who seem to easily mingle with the black guests, attracting the interest of Larry and his friend Fred (Jacob Lattimore), who try and hit on the girls, but realize they are connected to other guests at the motel, including a returning war veteran, the greatly underutilized Anthony Mackie as Greene, who starred in Bigelow’s earlier film The Hurt Locker (2008), but barely makes a presence here, while another one of motel guests has a toy starter pistol that makes a loud sound, but fires no bullets. The commotion caused by its noise, however, leads to a large-scale police assault, with the army firing live rounds into the window where it came from, with guests rounded up by police and lined against a wall, mirroring the opening sequence, but here there are no paddy wagons taking them to jail, instead they are subject to the monstrosity of Officer Krauss’s own home-grown brand of racist vitriol that all but contaminates the remainder of the film, using grotesque intimidation tactics, threatening to kill them all unless they provide the sniper’s weapon. With this, he then holds the viewers and the guests hostage for more than an hour as he threatens and abuses them one by one in vicious attacks, a lengthy, overdrawn sequence that simply derails the film, becoming another example of Hollywood torture porn, undermining any remaining credibility, as this scenario is pure speculation and probably never happened (actual witness testimony was inconsistent), but creates such an indisputably despicable picture of a racist cop gone rogue, whose beleaguered efforts are purely amateurish, yet the aftermath leaves three dead victims behind, whose cold-blooded murders are hardly accidental, but remain part of a sustained mindset where blacks are viewed as subservient, where the white women must be prostitutes, in the cop’s eyes, as otherwise what business would they have associating with so many blacks? This kind of Neanderthal thinking is the heart and soul of the film, the moral centerpiece, yet is so atrociously pathetic to endure in this day and age that the film can only be roundly condemned. Much like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards character in THE SEARCHERS (1956), his race hatred keeps him outside conventional society, yet he’s the star of the film, a tragic figure, to be sure, but still the action figure that, despite his flaws, endears himself to the viewing public, where John Wayne remains the picture of a beloved American hero, whose dirty business and questionable moral acts have been undertaken in protection of his family, so in the end all is forgiven. That was the major flaw in John Ford’s film, which despite its near universal critical acclaim remains one of the most virulently racist films in history in its deplorable depiction of Indians, who unlike the Irish, American settlers, or the cavalry, all beloved figures in Ford films, are routinely portrayed as ignoble savages. The same can be said for this film, as it drags viewers through the mud with one of the most despicable characters in recent film history, who perhaps inadvertently, like Wayne, actually becomes the star of the film, though viewers loathe what they’re forced to witness, which is to project unapologetically the backward thinking of a confirmed racist, one who believes in white superiority and places himself outside the law and above all other people of color, yet his non-stop moral failings couldn’t be more heinous and cowardly, fabricating evidence and implicating others with Iago-like conviction, continually covering up his own murderous criminality, yet in the end he’s the one, due almost entirely to his white race, that gets off scot free. Shaking our heads in disgust afterwards, one can only say, regretfully: Only in America.