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Detroit (Blu-ray Review)

After failing to make a more significant impact this past summer, Detroit is now available on Blu-ray. Working as a war film, a hostage thriller, a horror film and a searing commentary all rolled into one, director Kathryn Bigelow isn’t here to hold hands and make false assurances. Detroit is an angry film that once again plays as a spectacular historical research project brought to cinematic life by Bigelow and screenwriter/producer Mark Boal. Made with the same confidence that found this filmmaking duo success with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit heads back in time to paint a startling picture of a pivotal moment in American history. The results are upsetting and not always easy to sit through, but also powerful and now audiences can take in this film from their own home.

Film:

Traveling from a large portrait of the issue to a smaller and more desperate scenario, Detroit opens with an animated prologue incorporating a series of panels of the Great Migration of African Americans by artist Jacob Lawrence. That’s just some of the real material brought into this dramatization of events that also includes archival news footage, images, and other references to help provide context. Once the film steps into cinematic territory, we see the beginning of the multi-day riot that occurred in 1967 Detroit.

The characters who make up the leads will not appear until later, as Detroit takes its time to throw the audience into a riot, featuring angry citizens, the issues of looting and overcompensation on the part of various members of law enforcement. We see little vignettes during this portion, including one young black man who is seen early on smiling at a friend being arrested, only to find himself running away from an overzealous police officer and getting shotgunned in the back as a result.

Eventually, the film settles down on one location, the Algiers Motel. Following a misunderstanding that leads cops and the National Guard to believe they are being shot at, this hotel is raided by Detroit P.D., who go on to hold an innocent group against their will in an attempt to find a weapon and any excuse to beat and kill them. These victims were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, but Detroit doesn’t shy away from the physical and emotional disturbance created by bigoted bullies in a position of authority.

It may say something that much of the film rests on the shoulders of a showy and chilling performance by Will Poulter, the white cop who beats and torments several black men and two white women over the course of one long and harrowing night. Never mind the fact that Detroit was written, directed and produced by two (compassionate) white filmmakers. However, these feelings were pushed aside when it came to how effectively the film places the viewer in the shoes of the oppressed. This may not be a standard story about how heroism triumphs (spoilers for history: change is slow, and problems persist), but it never misses the mark when it comes to shining a light on what racial injustice honestly feels like.

Detroit features an ensemble cast, and while Poulter and Jack Reynor make up two of the racist cops (composite versions of real-life people for the film due to legal reasons), there is plenty of strength to be found in the other performances as well. Fittingly, the marketing puts a highlight on John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes; a security guard caught up in this ugly mess. Here’s a complicated character fit for a film of his own, as he deals with being a man good-natured enough to help the assaulted black victims when he can, but naïve to the point of not knowing how to do more.

Other vital performances include Anthony Mackie in a low-key turn as a Vietnam vet dealing with the brutality of this fateful night and Jason Mitchell in a small, but affecting role as a man unfortunately caught in the worst way. Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever play the two white women tied into this situation. The two other characters we get to know best are Jacob Latimore as Fred Temple and Algee Smith as Larry Reed, the lead singer of an up-and-coming R&B group called The Dramatics, which helps provide an excuse to give the film a strong Motown soundtrack.

The work turned in by these performers is plenty fitting for the film, but the choice to have cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips) take on a cinema vérité style adds to what we see. While setting a film during a long night can only go so far in developing characters who are confined to one tense situation, the immersive filmmaking style provides the audience with an authentically candid look at this situation. No further shading is needed to understand these characters at this point because the actions all speak for themselves.

As a storyteller, Bigelow has found her way into trouble before when it comes to what message is being sent in her films. Zero Dark Thirty, in particular, faced scrutiny for its portrayal of torture, since the film wasn’t designed to have a contrived scene of characters sitting around a table and talking about morality. It will be interesting to see what Detroit faces, as the film portrays a scenario of innocents against a display of brutality at its worst. However, is the depiction of this cruelty serving a purpose that effectively moves beyond “entertainment” found in suffering? I believe it does.

Detroit provides an unflinching look at an impossible situation for the victims involved. Bigelow’s approach is fittingly not dissimilar to how she took on genre films earlier in her career, which means getting a feel for the true horror of the scenes that make up the bulk of the film. That’s appropriate, as it is one thing to show a macro-scaled look at the riots, but another to have done the research and dig into this seemingly forgotten story that shows the types of injustices that have persisted through the years since. Fittingly, the film goes beyond a natural conclusion in favor of the frustrating trial that followed this unfortunate evening to show just how far these issues can go, which once again, is an aspect that has carried on.

Attempting to capture the weight of such scenarios is always going to be a tricky task. A film has the power to do so much and Detroit certainly creates an emotional spectacle out of the story being told. Fortunately, the actors are up to taking on such a challenge, as Boal and Bigelow craft a film around them that finds so many right notes to hit. The task taken on by these filmmakers may not have led to a fun time at the movies, as evidenced by its failure at the box office, but it should land on an audience hard enough to keep them thinking. With all the research done to have the film match up to the actual events, one can only hope the awareness created by this film adds something to get more people talking.

 

Video:

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Clarity/Detail: I should be a bit more lenient on what is presented here, as the “in the moment” cinematography choices tend to have issues more reflective of the nature of the film than the Blu-ray’s transfer. No doubt, everything has been done to preserve what was captured via digital photography. That said, as clear as many of the elements are, having the bulk of the film set inside a hallway/hotel rooms, it became evident that the detail levels were not at their finest. While the riots we see outdoors actually have a great level of clarity, moving indoors suddenly took away from that same level of sharpness. There is still plenty to enjoy visually, but for a long film, there were some minor issues.

Depth: Thanks to a few scenes highlighting how characters occupy a particular space, there was enough to find in scenes showing off the dimensionality of the film and it’s transfer.

Black Levels: Black levels are deep and inky. A lot of nighttime footage allows plenty of evidence of this. No signs of crushing, though the indoor areas do have a softer feel at times.

Color Reproduction: This is a somewhat muted film, but early presentations of colors with The Dramatics and the outdoor crowd scenes allow for plenty of detailed scenes to be noticed.

Flesh Tones: With lots of close-ups, we get plenty of clear facial textures throughout.

Noise/Artifacts: Clean.

 

Audio:

Audio Format(s): English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French

Dynamics: This is an impressive track for a film that incorporates so many different types of auditory elements. Crowd scenes feel massive, while the more intimate scenes that still involve lots of yelling play just as strong.

Low-Frequency Extension: Thanks to an ample amount of gunfire and explosions, the LFE channel gets a lot to do here. Bigelow doesn’t disappoint her action film fans.

Surround Sound Presentation: As mentioned, this is a complicated film as far as sound design and the surround aspect compensates for this. The various channels all do enough for the variety of environmental sounds, action-based sound effects, music and more.

Dialogue Reproduction: All the talking and yelling is heard.

 

Extras:

It’s a real shame to see so little by way of special features presented here. Rather than an involving doc about the history of the Detroit riots or a commentary track with Bigelow and Boal, it’s just a few EPKs.

Features Include:

  • The Truth of Detroit (HD, 2:08) – A brief EPK featuring Bigelow and some people involved in these events.
  • The Cast of Detroit (HD, 2:11) – A brief EPK featuring interviews with the cast.
  • The Invasion of Detroit (HD, 1:14) – A brief EPK focused on the nature of the city at the time.
  • The Hope of Detroit (HD, 1:25) – A brief EPK highlighting how change could happen.
  • Detroit – Then and Now (HD, 1:33) – A look at the past and present of the city.
  • Algee Smith and Larry Reed: Grow (HD, 3:35) – A musical performance that seems like the highlight of these extras.
  • Gallery (HD)
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:27)
  • DVD Copy of the Film
  • Digital HD Copy of the Film – iTunes and UltraViolet

 

Summary:

While well-reviewed, Detroit was still faced with a troubled reception by many questioning its importance, approach and the unfortunate dilemma concerning who’s behind the making of the film. I was above many of these issues, but have also welcomed the challenge of discussing why I think the movie is such a success that extends beyond the obvious notion that racism is wrong. With that in mind, this film can also be enjoyed for its solid technical presentation on Blu-ray. I wish the extra features went more in-depth, but at the same time, letting the film speak for itself is probably part of the point. Detroit was not a huge motion picture event, but it can be seen by all, and I think it’s worth it.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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