2017, R, 143 mins.
John Boyega as Dismukes / Will Poulter as Krauss / Algee Smith as Larry / Jacob Latimore as Fred / Jason Mitchell as Carl / Hannah Murray as Julie / Jack Reynor as Demens / Kaitlyn Dever as Karen / Ben O'Toole as Flynn / Anthony Mackie as Greene
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow / Written by Mark Boal
DETROIT is the new period crime drama from director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mike Boal, the same tandem behind the 2008 Oscar winning film THE HURT LOCKER as well as their follow-up effort, 2012's ZERO DARK THIRTY. Both of those films - two of the very best of their respective decades - were pulse poundingly thrilling historical narratives that dealt with deeply polarizing military conflicts.
again displays Bigelow at the absolute confident zenith of her
directorial craft in focusing on one of the most brutal race riots of that
city's history in late July of 1967, during which time 43 people died and
hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage occurred.
In many respects, DETROIT rounds off Bigelow's war trilogy in the
sense that it too deals with life on the battlefield, albeit of a
different breed: one that occurred on home soil and pitted American versus
American in heated conflicts of rampant bigoted hatred.
title of this film - arguably its one nagging weak point - is a bit of a
misnomer; DETROIT is not ostensibly about the city, nor is it concerned
with being a thorough overview of the five day riots.
It's more ostensibly focused on a particularly shameful incident
that occurred during the riots, the so-called Algiers Motel Incident, which
was located a mile east of where the riots began.
It was at this motel where three black civilians were brutally
killed by local police, with nine other people - two white females and
seven black men - were beaten and humiliated by the Detroit police, the Michigan
State Police, the National Guard, and one private security guard.
Two of the three deaths were caused by "justifiable self defense
and homicide," but later charges of murder, civil rights abuses,
and conspiracy were levied at three of the officers and the security guard,
whom all were found not guilty after a lengthy trial.
viewers - during one swift and artfully rendered opening animation
sequence - a backdrop of what led to this bloody and depraved night of
racial injustice, after which time Bigelow wastes very little expositional
time in thrusting us right into the beginnings of the riots themselves.
It's July 23, 1967 and the Detroit PD are staging a raid on an
unlicensed club during a celebration of returning black war vets.
Very quickly and alarmingly, an angry mob forms that morphs into
full scale civil riot over the city, which led to then Governor George W.
Romney declaring a state of emergency.
Considering the volatility of the relationship between blacks and
whites at the time and the perceived mistreatment by the largely white
officers during this raid, Detroit was a ticking time bomb of violent
unrest that only added fuel to the already out of control fire.
As the riots
begin to spiral out of control the story begins to zero in on a group of
characters that would eventually all convene at the Algiers Motels:
There's an aspiring singer (Algee Smith) and his partner (Jacob
Mackie); a war vet (Anthony Mackie); and a couple of morally loose white girls
(Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) that are just looking to have a good
time. As the mixed race occupants of the motel begin to mingle and
party, one loose cannoned resident (Jason Mitchell) decides that it would
be a hilarious prank to pull out his starter pistol and shoot at
patrolling officers outside. Unfortunately,
the city police and National Guard perceive this as hostile sniper fire, which
leads to them infiltrating the motel and rounding up everyone.
Two of the officers are textbook hot-headed racists, Krauss (Will
Poulter) and Demens (Jack Reynor), whom are accompanied by a few members of
the National Guard as well as an overtime working security guard (John
Boyega). What culminates next
is one of the most excruciatingly tense middle sections of a film that I
can ever recall as the belligerent and trigger happy cops resort to
frequent beatings and armed interrogation to find out who the sniper
is...which is complicated by the fact that there wasn't really one, per
se, to begin with.
script follows the historical record of what transpired that fateful and
damaging night at the Algiers Motel, despite the fact that key details
have been disputed to this very day.
DETROIT aims for historical verisimilitude through and through, but
uses some understandable artistic license to create a meaningful and
dramatic whole. Where Boal's
script succeeds is in the manner that he adeptly segues between multiple
characters and multiple events during the night in question while making
viewers feel that they have a grasp of the larger riots erupting around
these lost souls. Where his
script falls a bit short is in the sense that it takes awhile before
DETROIT manages to get to the sections involving the Algiers Motel
Incident, which somewhat hurts the film's overall pacing (at 145
minutes, the film is a tad too bloated for its own good considering that it's not
essentially a broad based portrayal of the city spanning riots
Yet, make no
mistake about it, the real standout of DETROIT is its director, and
Bigelow once again cements herself here as one of the most technically
proficient filmmakers in terms of crafting sequences of startling veracity
and nervous intensity. Much
akin to what Christopher Nolan did to slightly less effective results in DUNKIRK,
Bigelow wants to us to feel like intimate eyewitnesses to the horrors of a
small scale incident happening within the backdrop of a larger one, and
the sense of stark documentary-like immediacy that she brings to
portraying the horrors of this dark day in American history are
sensationally effective. Using
a combination of archival news footage and a free-wheeling
cinema verite camera technique, Bigelow triumphantly captures the
breathless and chaotic urgency of the riots with impressionistic editorial
flourishes and searing handheld cinematography that grippingly makes you
feel like you've been instantly transported to the past.
When the film finally begins to generate some serious momentum and
cements us in that motel and the unpardonable social horrors that occur
in it, DETROIT becomes one of 2017's most uncompromisingly harrowing
The film becomes
mercilessly unnerving during these sections as we bare witness to endless
scenes of police brutality and the sadistic means that these officers
employ to justify their interrogation.
Using violence and the non-stop threat of cold blooded murder,
Poulter's and Reynor's cops become some of the most morally bankrupt and
repugnant villains to grace the silver screen in some time (Poulter in
particular is positively chilling as his ultra racist beat cop without a
conscience to speak of). These
scenes are almost unbearable to endure, but they're crucial to
underscoring the central themes of DETROIT of undisciplined and unlawful
men of the law abusing their relative power to abuse and terrorize people
that they have sworn to protect. If
anything, the film is really about the absolute worst impulses of
venomously evil men and how they feel justified in using their intolerance
of others as a rallying call to arms.
One of the more
compellingly rendered characters caught amidst all of this is Boyega's
security guard, who's clearly a pitiful victim of being in the wrong place
and the wrong time. Witnessing the savage hate crimes being perpetrated by the
Detroit PD, Melvin ironically becomes embroiled in hostile attacks
by his own people who feel that he's gone all "Uncle Tom" for
working with law enforcement while dealing with prejudiced members of
the National Guard that don't quite take him seriously.
Boyega gives arguably the most soulful performance in DETROIT in
the sense that he crafts a commanding presence in the film with just body language
and his eyes. Rather
thanklessly, he has to convey a whirlwind of conflicted emotions
throughout the film without saying anything.
I only wished
that DETROIT were a tighter and leaner film.
Its opening sections are sporadically paced and the film's final 30
or so minutes tries to somewhat awkwardly shoehorn in the aftermath of the
riots and the subsequent trial of the officers; Bigelow
and Boal struggle to find a manner of bringing the piece to meaningful
closure. Yet, DETROIT is
still a gripping piece of fact-based cinema that packs an unmistakable gut
punching wallop. It not only
casts a shameful light on one of the most distressing events in 20th
Century American history, but it also manages to be sobering and topical
to contemporary eyes in how it draws meaningful parallels to wretched stories of modern police brutality and the continued racial divide that
permeates the country. The
timing of this film couldn't be any better, seeing as DETROIT is being
released on the 50th anniversary of the Algiers Motel Incident.
In many tragically ironic ways - especially if one looks at many
headlines from today - the level of monstrous police aggression that went
unchecked and often unpunished in the past hasn't completely
changed all that much in the present.
That's ultimately what makes DETROIT so undeniably engrossing and