Are You Ready to be Jimmy Caan?, or, Detroit (The Movie)

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Hey, how would one go about writing a blog post in such a way as to appear woke without seeming like they’re trying to appear woke and without betraying there casual ignorance of American History? I’m asking for a friend.

I would never say Detroit is a bad film and I would never say that it is an enjoyable one. It’s immersive and effective and stacked with excellent performances, but man, Detroit is an absolutely miserable movie.

Director Katheryn Bigelow’s latest film depicts events that took place in the Algiers Motel on a night in 1967 during the 12th Street Riot. A majority of the film focuses on the unsettling, claustrophobic proceedings, eventually proving to be an empathic endurance test.

Detroit lacks the narrative thrust of Bigelow’s previous based-on-true-events film, Zero Dark Thirty. Where that film’s focus on the proceedings of a global manhunt lent it an inherent momentum, Detroit largely abandons any sort of momentum when it arrives at the events in question. The film’s most compelling threads, concerning musician Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), are left to stew and stagnate and are only picked up again near the end of the film, making them feel like prologues and epilogues bookending the seemingly endless canvas of abuse and injustice that is the film’s lengthy second act.

It’s a bold move, the pacing equivalent of walking along the sidewalk for a few minutes, falling into a horrible, sprawling rancid puddle in which you become entrapped for like three hours, then finally getting out and walking home smelly, wet and miserable. The various narratives of the film are stopped cold and when they’re picked up again they are forever altered, certainly not unlike the lives of the victims of the incident in question.

Again, not a bad film, just an utterly miserable one.

Two decisions in particular really enable that misery, helplessness and injustice to permeate the film to its core.

The first, Barry Ackroyd’s handheld, documentarian cinematography, leaves the viewer feeling embedded in the unfolding events. Detroit is not a film looking for one perfect shot. It’s framing never feels planned and the images on the screen never feel composed so much as they feel captured.

The second, a sort of staggered, choosy contextualization, leaves the viewer with nothing to grasp but the abject abuse on screen. A brief animated sequence opens the film, providing a primer on the status quo of race relations in Detroit leading up to the 12th Street Riot and we’re shown a depiction of the onset of hostilities between police and the citizenry of the city, but I went into Detroit knowing nothing about the 12th Street Riot and I went out of Detroit knowing next to nothing about the 12th Street Riot. The backdrop to the events depicted in the film are taken as a given, treated like 9/11 is treated in Zero Dark Thirty, as an event that ubiquitous with the public consciousness  and thus requires no explanation. The macrocosm of the film is given no heft and the microcosm it concerns itself with suffers for it. Additionally, there’s a nuance afforded to the police force in the film that is not extended to the citizens of Detroit, which only furthers the uncertainty in regards to the world and the circumstances outside of the hellish motel the audience is held up in.

Without any sort of broader canvas to help contextualize the events at the Algiers Motel and with it’s utterly immersive camerawork, Detroit often feels like being forced into a front row seat watching the abuse of the powerless at the hands of the powerful simply for the sake of it.

And that may be exactly what it is.

I left Detroit wondering what it wanted from me, what it’s intent was. It didn’t feel educational as it doesn’t take particular interest in any single individual or in the 12th Street Riot. Its attempts at keeping a journalistic distance from the events keep it from feeling like an earnest call to action against the injustice it depicts. Ultimately, Detroit just feels like a very, very effective reproduction of a horrible incident. It feels like a film that wants nothing more than to have its audience bare witness to an unforgivable abuse of authority.

I would never say Detroit is a bad film and I would never say that it is an enjoyable one, but if its purpose is indeed to have its audience bare witness to cold, hard injustice and institutionalized racism, it achieves those aims with remarkable success.

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Star Wars Rebels Season Four Preview, or, I Saw an Episode of Star Wars Rebels You Probably Haven’t Yet! Neat, Huh?

Last month I was able to make my wistful daydreams a reality and not only finally attend Star Wars Celebration, but also wake up at 4am to stand in line and finally sit down for a LucasFilm Animation panel in person. At the panel, for Star Wars Rebels, I was able to see a screening of an episode from the show’s upcoming fourth and final season, Heroes of Mandalore Part I. Below, some spoiler-free thoughts to tide you over until Rebels returns this fall.

Oh who am I kidding, I just wanted to brag about seeing the episode first.

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Did you have the wherewithal to con your way into a children’s pass to Star Wars Celebration? I bet you didn’t.

If Heroes of Mandalore Part I is any indication, Rebels’ fourth season may prove to be its most energetic yet. The episode is essentially two acts, each of with centered on an aerobic-heavy action sequence. The episode finds our heroes more confident and capable than ever as they take on an UNDISCLOSED of UNDISCLOSED at UNDISCLOSED to UNDISCLOSED UNDISCLOSED’S UNDISCLOSED.

My take away from this episode really was the action. Humor and drama are both present and deftly wielded, but more than any previous episode I can think of, Heroes of Mandalore felt relentless and almost out of breath. The second action sequence in particular felt akin to something between Indiana Jones and (a more grounded) Fast and Furious. There’s a lot of momentum in this episode, which is a promising sign given that the Rebels panel also brought with it tidings of the show’s ending with this coming season.

That aerobic momentum is what you want from a final season, a sense of barreling for the finish line like an insane person, limbs flailing, breath be damned. The episode left me with the impression that Rebels’ would have a lead boot on the pedal for its final season.

Also that part where UNDISCLOSED UNDISCLOSED SPOILERS SPOILERS HAHA I SAW AN EPISODE OF REBELS YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T SEEN YET UNDISCLOSED SPOILERS was something else!

Hidden Figures, or, That Monday Morning Racism

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Spoiler alert, the newspaper he’s holding just says “Bazinga!”

Hidden Figures, based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, is a film that’s purpose is to inform. The movie details the exploits of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae respectively), African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s and whose substantial contributions to the space race have gone largely underreported.

It’s a film that focuses its attention on the heroic qualities of its protagonists rather than the despicable shortcomings of the society that put them so far below even relative equality. We see our heroes thinking, calculating, fighting for the right to learn and succeed. We don’t see a montage of news footage establishing the status quo of a segregated country. There are no particularly lavish, violent displays of bigotry. No firebombings or klansmen. The antagonistic oppression in Hidden Figures is more mundane, more everyday, more systemic, and by focusing more on the battles of the protagonists than the antagonist itself, Hidden Figures presents the inequality of the times in an understated, sinister light.

Where Twelve Years a Slave shows us the utter sickness of racism and Selma shows us the terrorism of racism, Hidden Figures nonchalantly presents the bureaucracy of racism, the Monday morning of racism, the water cooler chat of racism.

Hidden Figures is a bonafide heavyweight. A sleeper that, to the eyes many, came out of nowhere to knock Star Wars off the top of the box office and present a new kind of hit film that displays a type of heroism you won’t find on any other screen in the multiplex. And it made bank and nabbed a Best Picture nomination while doing it.

It’s a film that informs. It informs us not only of National Treasures we may not have known we had, but of the pedestrian oppression of America’s not-so-distant past.