Detroit (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 23 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.

Ecclesiastes 4:1

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Psalm 58:6

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.

From Episcopal Book of Common Prayer 1928

(c) Annapurna Distributtion

It has been 50 years since the death of 43 people during the violence that broke out on 12th Street in Detroit, and Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow teams again with screenwriter Mark Boal to offer a tribute to the victims. Detroit focuses upon three of the deaths, that of the murder of three black people trapped in a motel at the outbreak of the riot. Not only did a team of Detroit policemen kill the teenagers, they also tortured a group of other people (two of whom were white girls) that they held captive in what became known as the Algiers Motel incident. Sadly, this is not just a historical tribute to the victims, but also a reminder and a jeremiad against the current routine of black-killing cops being absolved of guilt for their crimes. For people of faith this also is a parable of the much-used Episcopal prayer of asking forgiveness for sins of omission as well as commission.

The destructive riot—many Detroiters today call it a rebellion—began on July 26, 1967, with at police night raid on an unlicensed bar located above a printing plant. The place was filled with friends of two black G.I.s just back from Vietnam when the cops launched their attack. Rounding up and herding the dozens of patrons in such a harsh and demeaning way, it would seem that the cops had been trained by those who had studied the tactics of the Nazi’s round-up of Jews. This is the 60s, so many of the policemen give full vent to their racist disdain for the black arrestees.

The commotion draws a crowd of onlookers, upset by what they are witnessing. The cries of some, “What did they do?” have been echoed down through the centuries of oppression. Soon someone is throwing a missile at the cops, and then the target becomes the windows of closed-up shops, followed by looting. Add a Molotov cocktail, and soon a riot is in full swing, the embattled original cops calling in reinforcements. In one of the numerous video clips inserted throughout the film we see Gov. George Romney ordering out the National Guard, complete with tanks, jeeps, and mounted machine guns. A war is on, a civil war of blacks against white enforcers of the Northern version of Jim Crow, with outbreaks also occurring that summer in Newark, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Cincinnati, and other cities.

By the next day the destruction covers several blocks, and trucks and tanks roll through the streets. The Guardsmen are so on edge that when a little girl peers out through her closed Venetians blinds, a Guardsman sees the motion and yells “Sniper” as he fires his machine gun at the window. From atop a car Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso) tries to calm the crowd, but they are too angry, their long pent-up resentment against their racist based treatment boiling over at last. (The film’s opening credits include an animated “history” of the great “Migration” of blacks from the South to the North and their subsequent segregation there also.)

Three patrolmen – Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O’Toole), and Demens (Jack Reynor) – drive through the streets amidst the burning and looting. They stop to arrest a man carrying two bags of groceries, but he runs away. Giving chase, Krauss fires his shotgun, hitting the man in the side. The fugitive gets away anyway, but bleeds to death later. When Krauss is reprimanded by a detective, he shows no remorse, even justifying his action. Surprisingly, the detective does not order the killer to stand down, but lets him go back onto the streets, which proves to be a terrible mistake, a sin of omission.

Meanwhile in a packed theater a musical review is going on, with a nervous Fred (Jacob Latimore) late in joining up with his singing group The Dramatics due to difficulties in getting through the police cordon outside. The group is to follow Martha and the Vandals, but just as the emcee is introducing them, a cop arrives with the order to evacuate the theater due to the riot. Lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) is so disappointed at missing their big opportunity to gain notice, that he remains on stage after the audience has left. He sings part of their song, with only Fred to hear it. The two take a bus to the Algiers Motel to stay the night. At the motel pool they meet two white girls from Ohio, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). Flirting with them, they invite them to a room where they say they can obtain some food. The occupants— Carl (Jason Mitchell), Lee (Peyton Alex Smith), and Aubrey (Nathan Davis, Jr.) –are not very welcoming. As they talk about the riot and the cops handling of it, Carl takes out a small pistol, and during a scuffle “shoots” Lee. The two laugh at the reaction of the others, revealing that it was a toy gun that uses blanks. The visitors and girls go back to their own room

Across the street African American security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is one of two men guarding a store. Seeing a club-wielding cop abusing a black teenager, he walks out and rescues the boy, even though the kid ungratefully calls him an “Uncle Tom” because of his uniform and gun.

From his motel window Carl watches the police swarming outside and makes a stupid mistake by trying to scare them with the firing of his blank pistol. The cops panic, taking cover and then wracking the motel’s windows with gun fire. They rush into the building, and when Carl tries to flee, Kraus shoots him in the back, stopping to drop an open switchblade by the body. A moment later Dismukes runs in, he becoming the first person to whom Kraus lies that he had killed the dead teenager in self-defense.

The nervous cops are convinced someone in the motel fired at them. (c) Annapurna Distributtion

The cops round up Larry, Fred, Aubrey, Lee, Julie, Karen, and another unfortunate motel patron named Greene (Anthony Mackie). Forcing them to face the wall of a corridor, Krauss begins aggressively to question and threaten them. He refuses to accept their claim that none of them had guns, even though a search fails to turn up any. Dismukes tries to moderate the situation, even conducting a search of the room himself, but he is black and thus has no influence upon the racist Krauss and his two fellow cops. State troopers arrive, but as soon as they see that the captives are a mixed-race group, their leader decides he wants no part of the incident, and quickly drives away. The National Guardsman who has joined the group also seems helplessly to accept Krauss’s drastic measures of interrogation by terror. The cops accuse the girls of being prostitutes and one of the men their pimp. During one round of questioning, a cop rips off the top of the dress of one of the girls, and Krauss fondles the other’s crotch with his billie club. The cops’ cruel mind game involves taking one of the captives into a separate room and pretending to shoot him in an effort to scare the others into confessing. This game goes horribly awry when the dumber of the cops, unaware that his colleagues had only pretended to kill the victim, actually carries out the threat. The long, horrible night will result in the murder of one more of the teenagers before dawn arrives the next day and the survivors are set free.

Dead are Carl Cooper, 17; Aubrey Pollard, 19, and Fred Temple, 18, shot at close range. There is a trial of the three racist cops, and even Dismukes at first is suspected of participating, until it is proved that he was a witness rather than a participant. The trial in the film is a composite of several actual ones, but the outcome is true—the defendants were declared “Not Guilty” by the jury. It was in the late Sixties, and the attitude of so many of the whites in the area was so racist that the trial might as well have been held in Mississippi.

The filmmakers do include a scene designed to show that not every Detroit cop back then was a racist potential thug. When Larry Reed is able to run from the motel, he is taken by a cop who, seeing his blood and bruises, takes him into his car and drives him to a hospital. The film ends with end notes informing us what has happened after the trial. Larry was so traumatized that he left the successful Dramatics to become a church choir director.

I marveled at the way in which Krauss was able to get his fellow cops and the National Guardsman to go along with his extreme method of interrogation. This horrific sequence took me back to the 2015 docudrama The Stanford Prison Experiment in which a professor hired 24 students to pretend they were at a prison, with some serving as guards, and the others prisoners. Almost immediately the guards began to abuse their authority, and the “prisoners” meekly submitted. The make-believe guards became so abusive that the experiment had to be ended long before its scheduled time. If this could happen in a role play situation, it should be little wonder that real life wielders of power would succumb, especially when racism is present.

Although the filmmakers change many of the names and condense trial events, the script stays close to the facts, though no doubt speculating on certain details that were murky at the time. For source material, the filmmakers had John Hersey’s 1968 book The Algiers Motel Incident, and equally important, three of the victims, the white Julie Delaney, played by Hannah Murray, and the black security guard, Melvin Dismukes, portrayed by John Boyega, and would-be singer Larry Reed. They not only spent time with scriptwriter Mark Boal, but at director Kathryn Bigelow’s insistence, Ms. Delaney was on the set for consultation during much of the filming.

That the film is as relevant today in its depiction of racism among law enforcement officers is evident from Ms. Delaney’s comment, “It’s amazingly sad that things haven’t changed. I thought things would change in 50 years. I really did. I guess that’s my looking through rose-colored glasses.”*

At times the brutality, both physical and mental, is so strong that it is difficult to watch, but watch it we should. I write this despite the disturbing Huffington Post article “‘Detroit’ Is The Most Irresponsible and Dangerous Movie Of The Year.” The distinguished authors attack the filmmakers for omitting the historical background of the riot and treating the blacks as just victims without giving us any of their background. I agree that providing more context would have improved the film, but I do not accept their recommendation to skip the film. It might be flawed, but it nevertheless should be viewed and discussed by as many people as possible.

*For more see the article in Detroit Free Press “Eyewitness to horrific night depicted in ‘Detroit’ movie shares story” at http://www.freep.com/story/entertainment/2017/08/04/survivor-detroit-movie-kathryn-bigelow-algiers-motel/532497001/

 This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables.

THE HURRICANE (1999)

Rated R.Running time: 2 hr. 26 min.

Our content rating (0-10): Violence-7; Language-4; Sex/Nudity-1

 Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause

                   against an ungodly people;

             from those who are deceitful and unjust deliver me!

For you are the God in whom I take refuge;

                   why have you cast me off?

          Why must I walk about mournfully

      because of the oppression of the enemy?

             O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me;

                let them bring me to your holy hill

and to your dwelling.

                        Psalm 43:1-3

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Lesra meets the prisoner Ruben Carter whose book led him to work for his exoneration. (c) 1999 Universal Pictures

 A social justice story of the first order, Norman Jewison’s film stars Denzil Washington as the New Jersey boxer Rubin Carter wrongfully accused of murdering three people in a bar. If the film is to be believed (there are still folk who dispute Carter’s version of events), Carter’s nemesis was a racist cop who had him put away when he was a young boy charged with stabbing a prominent white citizen. Carter had stopped the man from molesting a friend and stabbed him only when the molester tried to throw him over a cliff. Years later, the policeman follows Carter’s exploits in the boxing ring and hopes to put him back behind bars. He finds his opportunity when petty crooks give perjured testimony in exchange for lenient treatment in their own case. An all white jury convicts the boxer, and through an up and down struggle that later included the publication of his book defending himself, and such celebrities as Bob Dylan and Susan Sarandon enlisting in his cause, a second trial and conviction, Carter becomes convinced that he will end his days in prison. He forces his wife to get a divorce, and he withdraws from all outside contacts and external desires in the belief that then the racist society that had imprisoned him can no longer touch him.

It is the chance purchase of Carter’s book by a black teenager being raised by a group of white Canadians that leads to the break-through in Carter’s status. Lesra, son of American ghetto parents, was being given an opportunity for a better life by a well-meaning group of Canadians. Carter’s book was the first Lesra had ever been interested in, let alone read. The teenager becomes so obsessed with the wrongfulness of the boxer’s incarceration that he writes to the boxer. Carter is moved by the boy’s words, and thus breaks his rule of not answering his correspondence. One letter leads to another, and by then the three Canadians (the original 9 are reduced to a more manageable number for the sake of drama) are also caught up in Carter’s case, so they visit, and then move to New Jersey to work on his case. It takes a long time, especially in the face of so much apathy and hostility, but the results prove again how one person can make a difference.

Good teaching/preaching scenes: Carter quotes from the KJV of Genesis 29:32, “Behold a son.” He tells Lesra that his name is a form of Lazarus, “Behold, a son who is risen from the dead…Hate put me in prison. Love’s gonna get me out!” Lesra agrees, “I’m gonna get you out.” “You already have,” Carter replies, meaning far more than just physical release.

The world view of Carter in this film is very different from that of the chief characters in Snow Falling On Cedars (also reviewed in the March 200 VP), the second film’s characters stating that we live in an indifferent universe in which chance prevails. Carter tells Lesra that he didn’t just pick up that book by chance: he was led to do it. There is a Power that works in the universe to set things right.

From March 2000 Visual Parables.

Belle (2013)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.

Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…

Isaiah 61:1

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

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Belle dislikes John at first, her heart opening to him when they agree on issues of race and human dignity. (c) 2013 Fox Searchlight

Director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay’s Belle is a beautiful blend of a Jane Austen novel about women forced to contend with male-centered marital prospects with the social concern of Michael Apted’s 2006 film Amazing Grace which dealt with the British anti-slavery leader William Wilberforce. Both films deal with the themes of prejudice and the battle against slavery in 18th century England, but approach it from different sides of the issue—Amazing Grace from that of the abolitionists’, and Asante’s film from that of one of the victim’s, Belle, a young mixed-race woman who learns to refuse to remain a victim. Thus the new film should appeal to two audiences, those that love a love story amidst sumptuous surroundings, and those seeking a social justice film that, despite being set in the past, still has great relevance.

Loosely based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of an aristocratic Royal Navy captain (Matthew Goode) and a Caribbean slave, the film was inspired by the painting “Dido and Elizabeth” at Scone Palace in Scotland. The painting shows two young ladies in 18th century aristocratic dress, clearly depicted as equals, yet the one on the left is a “Negro.” The script, “based on a true story,” imaginatively seeks to fill in the gaps in the historical record.

The story begins with the then Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) bringing his little illegitimate daughter to his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson). His lover has died, and he wants to insure that their daughter whom he has named Dido Elizabeth Belle will have a proper upbringing, with his being always away at sea. Lord Mansfield is the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, and so his taking a girl deemed a mulatto into his household is no small matter. However, after getting over their initial shock at the girl’s mixed race (Lindsay had not told them in advance), he and his wife agree to do so. They will have the considerable aid of the Lord’s unmarried sister Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton). Later as they look out the window to watch Dido, as they prefer to call Belle, playing with Elizabeth, the other niece the childless couple is raising, they already express their concern for the girl’s marriage prospects in England’s racist society.

Jump ahead 15 years, and now Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who have grown as sisters, are at the age of being courted by prospective suitors. The irony is that Belle, having a good inheritance left to her by her father, having died at sea after reaching the rank of Admiral, has all the money required for the dowry of a good marriage, whereas Elizabeth is almost penniless, and thus unlikely to attract a moneyed suitor. The big obstacle for Dido is her race, and that for Elizabeth is her lack of money. The latter sighs to Belle late in the film, “We are but [men’s] property”—a sentiment worthy of Jane Austen.

Belle is raised as a companion and not a servant of Elizabeth, and thus, as can be seen in the famous painting, dresses as well as her “sister” and also receives the same education in languages, music, and literature. But, when the Mansfields entertain guests, she is not allowed to dine with the family, Lord and Lady Mansfield apparently bowing to the racial feelings of their peers. Dido questions him about this treatment, noting that she is, “Too high in rank to dine with the servants, but too low to dine with the family?” Those feelings are voiced by one of their guests when Belle joins the guests for the after dinner coffee: when introduced to Belle, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) remarks, ”I had no idea she’d be so…black.”

The catty Lady is in the market for suitable mates for her two sons Oliver (James Norton) and James (Tom Felton). During their visit the nasty James denigrates Belle in a snide remark to his brother. Across the room Belle is shown blithely unaware of the racist tone of the whispered remarks. Oliver, however, is attracted by Dido’s beauty, and subsequently revealed intelligence and wit. Despite his brother’s disapproval, he decides to court her. James for a while seeks to woo Elizabeth, but when he discovers she will bring no wealth or property with her, he quickly drops her for a better prospect. One of the most powerful confrontations in the film will be that of his manhandling Belle at a garden reception, sneering at her racial status, and Belle’s rapier-tongued reply that puts him in his place. This is quickly followed by Elizabeth, not yet aware that James has spurned her, becoming deeply upset when Belle tries to tell her that James is not worthy of her. She even calls Bell a liar when her cousin reveals the scoundrel’s attack on her, accepting the veracity of the story only after she reads of James’ engagement to another woman.

In 1783, Lord Mansfield as High Chief Justice is struggling with his decision in what the political pamphlets of the time called “The Zong Case,” one dealing with what anti-slavery advocates called the Zong Massacre. In 1781 142 Africans, aboard a slave ship named Zong and suffering from disease and the ravages of the Middle Passage, were thrown overboard on the pretext that there was not enough water and food for both crew and “cargo.” The owners and the insurance company were in a dispute over payment for the loss of the “cargo.” A lower court had found in favor of the ship owners, and so the insurers had appealed the decision to the higher court.

Now Belle has grown in her understanding of English racist practices through her own experience and from several contacts with the would-be lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid), a fervent abolitionist and son of a vicar. The two had started out on the wrong foot, and it takes a while for Belle to warm to him. But he had been drawn to her from the first moment of their unfortunate first meeting. For a brief time he serves as a clerk for Lord Mansfield, but his abolitionist views and his attraction to Belle lead the judge to fire him and forbid further contact. Such statements as, “Human beings cannot be priced. Humans are priceless” leads Belle to reassess her opinion of the young man. She gives her heart to Davinier, slipping out of the house for furtive meetings concerning the case. She discovers and shares with Lord Mansfield some evidence that disproves the claim of the Zong’s crew, leading the judge to a decision that will virtually make slavery illegal in England and Wales (more on this later). Belle’s discovery is the product of the writer’s imagination, but historians do suggest that her presence in Lord Mansfield’s household was an influence in his decision.

One of the strengths of the film is the way in which Belle’s self-understanding develops, resulting in her refusal to accept society’s adverse judgment of her and her kind. Early in the film we see her still accepting her inferiority when she looks with great anguish into a mirror. Crying, she grasps her skin as if she would strip it away, rejecting its dark complexion just as much as her detractors had. I was reminded of this similar self-rejection two centuries later when thousands of black Americans bought creams “guaranteed” to lighten their complexion, and thus supposedly making the user more acceptable to the larger society. That “Black is Beautiful” campaign in the Sixties was indeed necessary! No doubt that Belle could have embraced such a slogan is beautifully depicted in the sequence in which she sits uneasily for the artist at work on the famous painting. She is obviously fearful, perhaps thinking how she would be portrayed alongside her beautiful cousin. When at last she sees the finished painting the face of the actress shows not only relief but also the awareness that she truly is beautiful. There is a self-acceptance or self-assurance that society’s racists can no longer disturb.

This self-assurance is strongly shown in the scene that was so moving that the screening audience broke out into applause and cheers. Oliver had proposed marriage to Belle, much to the relief and joy of Lady Mansfield and Lady Ashford listening just outside the parlor door. Belle agrees to think about it, but eventually decides to decline. She has by now found that John Davinier is her true soul mate. Lady Ashford, with her son Oliver in tow, visits Lord and Lady Mansfield to appeal Belle’s rejection. No doubt the dear lady is concerned at losing out on Belle’s considerable fortune. When she demands to know why Belle has turned down what she considers such a worthy proposal, Belle bluntly tells her that she would not think of marrying into a family in which her race was considered odious.

The film might move slowly for American audiences, but it has many such moments that stir the soul. As with most historical films, the script is loose with the historical facts. In the case of Lord Mansfield it combines two cases separated by almost two decades: it was in a 1772 case (Somerset v Stewart Case, Lord Mansfield) that the Judge actually declared that slavery is “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law”—the latter referring to a law passed by Parliament. The effect of this decision was to make slavery illegal in Great Britain itself, certainly a great step that highly encouraged the nascent abolitionist movement of the time (so wonderfully depicted in Amazing Grace). And aside from its anti-racist theme, the film’s love story will gladden the heart of the myriad of Jane Austen fans. John Davinier is a good stand-in for Mr. Darcy, and Belle can certainly hold her own with Elizabeth Bennet—even Austen’s title Pride and Prejudice could apply to this film.

The review with reflection/discussion questions will be available for subscribers in the June 2014 issue of Visual Parables. You can subscribe–and have access to even more reviews and articles in back issues–by going to the Visual Parables Store.