Anger And Horror Abound In The Powerful ‘Detroit’ (Movie Review)

In a summer that’s already thrown us into war and pulled us out feeling optimistic enough with Dunkirk, Detroit has now come along to fuel a different, more complicated fire. 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.

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 over compensation 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 simply 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 truly 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 key 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 turn 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 movie, 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 movie 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 brutality 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 real 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 presents 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 truly 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, 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 movie adds something to get more people talking.

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