First Impressions of Detroit

I watched Detroit last night, Kathryn Bigelow‘s new film about three black men who were murdered at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit Riots. Bigelow’s other films include The Hurt Locker (2008), K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), a mixed record as far as I’m concerned. But all I can say is, wow. Detroit grabs you and never lets go. It’s by far the best movie I’ve seen this year. Here are some of my first impressions:

  • I wasn’t alive during the 1960s, but the movie feels authentic. The settings, dress, characters, and documentary style transport you back to that time, and not in a cliched, feel-good way.
  • Will Poulter, who played Kenny Rossmore in We’re the Millers (2013), is incredible as a racist Detroit patrolman named Philip Krauss. Everything from his hair to his facial expressions make him look like he stepped off the pages of an early 1960s yearbook.
  • Although Detroit doesn’t disguise its message, it isn’t entirely one-sided, showing the destructiveness of the mob and the efforts of some white policemen and authority figures try to combat the excesses of racist officers.
  • Powerful images dominate the film. When a security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is taken into an interrogation room, you can see a handcuff dangling from a pipe and a discolored stain on the wall at the same level as his head. The movie doesn’t have to show violent interrogations took place–all it needs is this one brutal image.
  • Detroit’s run time is over two hours, but it grips you and never slows down until the ending trial scene. By the way, John Krasinski is really out of place as an attorney named Auerbach. He was the only bad casting choice.
  • I understand why the filmmakers chose to focus on the controversial event at the Algiers Motel, but it downplays the 40 other people who died during the five-day riots. 1,189 people were also injured, including 348 Detroit police and firefighters, 55 National Guardsmen, 67 State Police, 15 Wayne County Sheriff deputies, and eight soldiers. 2,509 stores were looted or burned.
  • Although an attempt was made, I don’t think enough was done to show how the National Guardsmen and other law enforcement trying to restore order felt threatened by the rioters. While it doesn’t excuse their behavior, it might help explain why they were so on edge, which the audience never gets a solid feel for.
  • The the main character, played by Algee Smith, finds some solace in gospel music, there is no happy ending here.

I’ll have much more when I post my full review next week.

An Honest Assessment of Get Out

Written and directed by Jordan Peele of Key & Peele and MADtv, Get Out (2017) is the story of a young interracial couple, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), meeting Rose’s parents for the first time. By all appearances, Mr. and Mrs. Armitage (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) have no idea Chris is black. They seem to be friendly and progressive, if not awkward, but all is not what it seems.

This is Peele’s first film, and it has gotten nearly universally positive reviews, which I’ll admit, perplexed me at first. When I saw the preview, I thought it was a joke, like the horror movie spoof “Ghost Tits.” It looked like something from MADtv or The Chappelle Show, which makes sense since Jordan Peele is mostly known for sketch comedy. Critics said Get Out was “the smartest horror movie in ages,” “fresh and sharp,” and “masterfully and subtly crafted.” I had to see if it lived up to the hype.

Critics love to exaggerate positives and negatives, and there’s definitely some of that going on with these reviews, but Get Out is a solid, well crafted horror film. The preview doesn’t do it justice. The music, scares, characters, editing, foreshadowing, actors and actresses–all of it works.

The characters are genuinely creepy. We’ve all walked into situations where we had to meet people for the first time and they were a little odd or off putting. Get Out ratchets up that feeling and adds a racial element into the mix to make it more believable. The audience second guesses themselves along with the main character. Is there something wrong with these folks, or is it just culture shock?

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Feasting at God’s Table

Father Divine, Conspicuous Consumption & Racial Harmony

Father_Divine_02
George Baker, Jr., “Father Divine”

In American culture, health and prosperity has long been wedded to the consumption of food. At the dawn of the twentieth century, it was the ability to eat what one wanted and when that defined an American family’s assent into the growing middle class. It was no accident that there appeared in America during the 1920s a man who offered salvation through the act of eating. Father Divine, professing himself to be God incarnate, urged his followers to transcend race and poverty through the power of positive thinking. His message crossed racial lines because he appealed to shared traditions in American culture, traditions like conspicuous consumption, Charismatic Christianity, and the Protestant work ethic.

Father Divine’s movement was at its height during the Great Depression. At a time when scarcity affected millions, this eccentric preacher offered men and women a taste of the American dream―for the price of personal sacrifice and loyalty. He provided Americans across the country, both black and white, rich and poor, the perfect confluence of food, religion, and spectacle to distract them from the harsh realities of everyday life. He offered hope that racial unity and personal perfection could be achieved through the union of religion and the dinner table.

The Importance of Food in America

Americans have always given special significance to food and drink. When the first European colonists arrived in North America they encountered a land teeming with wildlife. At Plymouth Colony in 1621, a storm left the beach covered with piles of lobsters two feet high. “They were so plentiful and so easily gathered that they were considered fit only for the poor,” Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont explained in Eating in America. The storm left pools of crabs all along the shores of Virginia. Commenting on the abundance of fish at Jamestown, Captain John Smith wrote, “we tooke more in owne hour than we could eate in a day.” The colonists wondered at the size of the salmon, strawberries, and lobsters in the New World, and the Pilgrims, finding the luxury of clams and mussels tempered by their abundance, fed them to hogs.[1]

With origins in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the act of breaking bread with friends and neighbors had long been ingrained in religious ritual. Therefore, it was a feast the Pilgrims shared with the Wampanoags after their first arduous winter in New England, which eventually inspired the creation of a national holiday, Thanksgiving, centered around the consumption of large quantities of food. John Smith celebrated his first Christmas in the New World around the dinner table with the Powhatans and noted, “we were never more merry nor fed on more plenty of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild fowle and good bread, nor ever had better fires in England.”[2]

A hundred years later, the American colonists placed food and drink high on their list of grievances with the motherland. The Tea Act of 1773 precipitated the infamous Boston Tea Party, in which fifty angry colonists disguised as Native Americans dumped 90,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor. Under the stifling economics of mercantilism, tea had become a symbol of British rule. The British used excessive taxes as a weapon against colonial merchant-agitators like John Hancock, who customs officials accused of smuggling Madeira; a type of fortified wine.

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