Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, Joseph David Jones, Ephraim Sykes, Leon Thomas III, Nathan Davis Jr., Peyton Alex Smith, Malcolm David Kelley, Gbenga Akinnabve, Chris Chalk, Jeremy Strong, Laz Alonzo, Austin Hebert, Miguel Pimentel, Kris Davis, John Krasinski, and Anthony Mackie.
Amidst the chaos of the Detroit Rebellion, with the city under curfew and as the Michigan National Guard patrolled the streets, three young African American men were murdered at the Algiers Motel.
Stripping away cosmetics, technology, and other notable modern world advancements, the titular city of Detroit along with its inhabitants majorly ranging from oppressed African-Americans to grotesquely racist and terrorizing police officers has embarrassingly seen little progress. Detroit is a largely historical account of events set in 1967 yet feels ripped from a newspaper article out of yesterday. How can so little change for the better over the span of five decades? Even scarier, I just reviewed a film not even a month ago where I mentioned that history is doomed to repeat its mistakes, which also fits all too well here. The definite positive is that filmmakers all across the globe are forcing audiences to look in the mirror and accept the darker atrocities humankind has committed over the years, with hope that we can finally learn from our wrongdoings.
Furthermore, there aren’t many more real-life authentic and tension skilled directors than Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) who is also once again working with frequent script writer Mark Boal. Right from the beginning, Bigelow opts to quite literally paint a picture via oil painting animation depicting the reasoning for racial tensions erupting into riots, soon throwing audiences into the citywide chaos before even establishing primary characters along with their motivations. It’s one hell of an experience, complete with a rare instance where drunken shaky camera movements actually heighten the realism of the situation. Quickly, the National Guard is called in turning Detroit into a literal war zone, leaving viewers both heartbroken and disappointed that violence could spiral this far out of control in America. Simple shots inside the police station of arrested minorities beaten and bruised result in striking imagery.
Supposedly, we’re the land of freedom and opportunity, but watching this movie you begin to feel the total opposite. Once again, all one has to do is open their Twitter feed from Donald Trump to confirm that, yep, if anything, we’re not making much forward progress and if anything, beginning to regress (at the time of this writing he has banned Transgender citizens from enlisting and serving in the military, because you know, Conservatives want to rid Earth of ISIS but quiver in fear at the thought of anyone that strays from their beliefs protecting their lives). Think about it, with how many mainstream media stories regarding police brutality against minorities, Kathryn Bigelow didn’t even have to go recent, which actually helps the film send a stronger, far more profound statement. This has been going on for ages, still happens, and will sadly probably continue to occur unless people finally take a stand. Movies like Detroit don’t just support the cause; they become vital works of art that transcend entertainment.
The incident in question is a harrowing night at the Algiers Motel, where most of the characters introduced during the opening act converge into one setting for an unrelenting and unflinching onslaught of police barbarity. It’s also paramount to mention that, no, Detroit is not 100% bashing the brave souls that protect us on a daily basis. Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, the producers, the writers, etc aren’t stupid and are aware of how to objectively dramatize a story where they admit that not all of the facts are present. One of the most touching scenes in Detroit is a white police officer coming across one of the tortured black victims, simply asking how one human can do this to another. To be honest, it’s a pretty fucking good question.
At the center of all this abusive power are three police officers played by Will Poulter, Ben O’Toole, and Jack Reynor, who are all varying degrees of sick in the head. Essentially, everyone is under command from Poulter’s Krauss, aka American racism personified. He seems to literally believe that the solution to the problem is just gunning down African-Americans without good reason (he doesn’t even go two minutes in the movie without bolting out of his vehicle chasing down a looter of groceries, firing shotgun rounds in his back, effectively murdering the man). Far more horrifying is his ability to casually lie about the truth in order to justify his sadistic actions. It is unquestionably the performance of young Will Poulter’s career; he is pure fucking evil harboring irrational hatred that cannot be explained. Sure, he doesn’t have much characterization, but people like him actually exist. That’s all that needs to be said to believe and buy into each and every act of barbarity he remorselessly carries out. Poulter is absolutely deserving of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
Meanwhile, on the side of the oppressed we have a variety of folks including an up-and-coming singer for The Dramatics (Algee Smith) along with his friend/assistant (Jacob Latimore), a war veteran trying to make an honest living played by Anthony Mackie, a rebel played by Straight Outta Compton‘s Jason Mitchell who sparks the whole Algiers Motel incident with a fake gun that fires blanks (naturally, miscalculated reactionary decisions and racism ensure that everyone suffers), two visiting white women (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) who also are subject to violence for associating with negroes, and Star Wars rising star John Boyega in the most complex role as a security guard caught in the middle of trying to do what’s right and not interjecting into the horror. Boyega too is worthy of an Oscar nomination, masterfully utilizing body language and facial expressions to hide his inner suffering essentially watching on as helpless to those being brutalized. He has minimal dialogue but the most reserved and notable performance.
With all that said, it should be reiterated that there isn’t much character definement or development throughout Detroit. It establishes names along with their motivations before they all cross paths in one horrifying, extended incident that makes for one of the hardest viewing experiences since 12 Years a Slave, but a mandatory watch. Bigelow keeps the event unfolding in real-time for roughly one hour without the film ever dipping into repetitive territory or boredom. Honestly, the tension just builds while viewers question how rotten these three police officers can become, and what low depths they can sink to. The answer is challenging to stomach, just like the film. Detroit is by definition a docudrama (there is footage of the real riots mixed in during the opening act), but it plays out like a horror movie.
Detroit‘s only real flaw is that there is actually much more to explore that is glossed over, such as the concept of city natives destroying and burning down shops and buildings to make a point, along with the uneasy topic of black on black violence. The Algiers Motel incident is a fucked up, exceptional raw stretch of filmmaking, but in some ways, it consumes too much of the experience. Vicariously living in the war zone is equally as fascinating, yet zips by quickly. Basically, even at the lengthy running time of 143 minutes, it feels as if there is more ground to cover. Also, while logically it makes sense to round out the film with courtroom drama to bring systemic racism full-circle regarding how the justice system is also crooked beyond belief, the final 20 minutes or so lose some edge and intensity. Nevertheless, Detroit is an important piece of filmmaking that is bound to generate more much-needed controversial race and privilege discussion.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★