One Night in Hell
Oh this is gonna be fun, and I mean in a not-at-all-fun way. A politically loaded topic for a film? Check. Said film about black people being tortured by white officers was also written and directed by white people? Check and check. But said film has also been receiving universal acclaim from several critics, but also lambasted by others for feeling too exploitative and dishonest about the events that had occur? Triple freaking check. But hey, controversial films can drive the medium forward, and discussing their political issues can reveal a lot about the topic and ourselves when we really start to think about it. So with that, let’s dive into the dramatization of the Algiers Motel Murders during the 1967 Detroit Riots.
Starting with a police raid of an African American night club that’s been seen as the beginning of the 12th Street Riots, our film walks us through the first two days of civil unrest that lead Governor George Romney (yep, Mitt’s father) to call in the National Guard and keep the destruction of property to a minimum. Of course that doesn’t happen, leading to several deaths of several black people and paranoia rising among the predominantly white (and mostly racist) police force of Detroit. We then follow four people for the remainder of our tale: Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard; Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), a murderous and deeply prejudiced cop; Larry Reid (Algee Smith), the lead singer for the Motown-bound band The Dramatics; and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), a friend of the Dramatics. When Larry and Fred find themselves in the Algiers Motel to lay low while the riots rage on, another tenant of the motel (Jason Mitchell) pops off several blanks from his toy gun as a joke that’s taken by National Guardsmen and Melvin as sniper fire. The soldiers, Melvin and Detroit officers lead by Krauss arrive on the scene of the Algiers to investigate, rounding several of the motel’s patrons including Greene (Anthony Mackie), Aubrey (Nathan Davis Jr), and Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) to find out who fired the supposed sniper rifle. Unfortunately for them, Krauss and his crew turn their investigation into a nightmare scenario by systemically torturing and killing the patrons.
Without exaggeration, when you get to the Algiers Motel in Detriot, the film becomes a straight up horror movie. It is gut-wrenching and terrifying to watch these cops begin a series of torture tactics on a bunch of unarmed and innocent civilians that wouldn’t look out of place in Kathryn Bigelow’s last film, Zero Dark Thirty. And yes, to be clear, the patrons at the Algiers Motel were indeed innocent of any wrongdoing both in the film and in real life. Even taking away the patron who fired the toy gun, it is obvious to anyone, even people who trust American police officers as absolutely free of any wrongdoing, that these people have been tortured and some were killed in unjustifiable ways.
The acting is what truly sucks you into these characters’ lives and makes you fearful that they are in mortal danger. Now it helped you got to know Larry and Fred in the day leading up to the murders during the first act of the film. It set up their personalities, their hopes and dreams, their current struggles, and what they had to look forward to. While I was impressed with Algee Smith’s very charismatic performance (and his wonderful singing voice), Jacob Latimore came out as the MVP of the entire production. He demonstrated a range of emotions from beginning to end, and he had the strength and confidence to show himself in vulnerable states. So happy that I now have something to point to as a positive for him after the disastrous Collateral Beauty (which he mercifully wasn’t in for very long). Unfortunately, the film also limits its character development time to these two persons, and you don’t really get to know the rest of the cast.
While Boyega demonstrated yet another solid performance, he’s really not given much to do and thus has very little opportunity to show off his strengths as an actor compared to Smith and Latimore. Honestly, he’s got as much screen time as Anthony Mackie’s soldier character, and Mackie stood out to me slightly more as he was getting his the crap kicked out of him (more on that in a bit). Really, the only other standout was Will Poulter’s Krauss, who manages the next to impossible of seeming more frightening than Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave. Jesus, to think he was the dumb kid from that We’re the Millers a few years back, Poulter turns in one of the most despicable performances of the year. Shown to be far more than your average racist cop, his Krauss is threatening as he beats the black men, molests the women and carelessly waves his shotgun in the faces of all the patrons. It’s a harrowing performance, matched only by the gruesome actions he and his cohorts (including one played by Jack Reynor) inflict on the Algiers Motel guests.
All of the horrors of this police brutality is demonstrated through Bigelow’s documentary-style filmmaking that she’s been exploring since The Hurt Locker. It works effectively at drawing you into the scenario, but I’d also say it does it’s job a little too well. “What kind of criticism is that?” I hear you say, “Shouldn’t the film be praised unquestionably if it truly showed you the intensity of the situation?” But that’s the problem, the film is demonstrated these terrors as hardcore as it could get without letting me learn more about our victims. This is part of the reason I had such an issue with Birth of a Nation (2016) but still praised to high heaven 12 Years a Slave, your attachment to a character is strengthened when you get to know them intimately that you feel genuine concern when they’re put into danger. And while that was accomplished well for Latimore and Smith’s characters, even more horrible crimes befell the other characters and our attachment to them was limited to just a few scenes.
Mackie’s torture scene in particular stood out to me, as we are first introduced to him as the police initiate their raid on the motel. Unlike the rest of the cast, we didn’t even know his name until he was getting it beat out of him almost an hour and a half into the film. His scene in particular reminded me unpleasantly of Hostel and The Passion of the Christ, as it borderline dips into torture-porn territory with how horribly he’s being treated and with how little he was given to establish himself. The same criticism goes for Jason Mitchell’s character, who you witness bleed out for a few minutes on the floor in agonizing pain as he sheds tears and whimpers while Krauss goes about framing him for resisting arrest with a weapon. Huh, that sounds vaguely familiar (warning: graphic video in that link), and in a way that I think certain members of the audience will not appreciate.
Look, I’m a Latino man who grew up in a predominantly Latino city, while going to college in a mixed race city. I really have very little understanding as to what Black people are thinking when they’re being approached by police officers, but I’m also aware of multiple incidents in which cops have exceeded their authority and committed acts of violence upon undeserving citizens through various criminal cases I studied in law school. Even before the prevalence of smart phones have made capturing police on tape perform actions that were much different from what they reported, I was aware of issues of police brutality and how it has affected African-American communities in distrust of the police.
Additionally, I can see anyone sensitive to this kind of imagery to have major unpleasant feelings about it. A friend of mine experienced this when he saw Detroit, which was an affirmation of this damn great review by Angelica Basten of the film: that it was exploitative of what blacks have experienced at the hands of police. Both of them have pointed out that this film could be more marketed towards white audiences as exposure to extrajudicial police killings. In a way, I do agree with them. The nature of the killings in Detroit are incredibly difficult to watch, so much so that I had to turn away at certain scenes because I literally could not take it anymore. Some critics will say that it’s nonetheless important that people are exposed to the terror of police brutality in a way we can. And I agree with that sentiment due to a certain degree.
I think a film that accomplished its goal of demonstrating police brutality more effectively would be Fruitvale Station. Granted, it was much more focused than Detroit was by focusing on a single person that was the victim of an extrajudicial killing, but you were given the requisite background on this character by being shown the last day of his life. As an audience, we had plenty of time to get to know our protagonist, and be able to see what was going through his mind as he was put into a horrendous situation. It made his death all the more poignant, as it was a true tragedy to watch this life be extinguished for no damn reason.
While Detroit is a technically well made film with solid direction, decent scriptwriting, and strong acting; I’m less inclined to recommend watching this than I was for recommending either Fruitvale Station or 12 Years a Slave. They were much stronger as a whole for giving you important character development before rocking you to your core with real life horrors that befell them. At the same time, I still found myself leaving the theater in an emotionally exhausted state while being swelled with anger at the injustices that befell the victims of the Algiers Motel Murders, injustice that continues to occur to this very day.
Very torn on how I feel about this film for all the reasons given. It’s possible my opinion of the film may change in the coming months as I ponder if this is “best of the year” material, but for now, I’m going to call this at a low…