Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie
Every once in a while, a movie comes around that truly appalls you – not because of poor quality, but because of how it allows you to reflect on reality. Detroit, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is that kind of movie. Although it takes place 50 years ago, it feels as sickeningly relevant as ever.
The plot revolves around the well-known Detroit riots in 1967, and more specifically, around the lesser-known Algiers Motel incident, in which a team of police officers who wrongfully held up, abused, and murdered several of the motel’s African American residents.
At the very best, I would have liked to have walked out of this film feeling shocked that events such as these could have even happen in the first place, even if it was five decades ago. However, because of the state of the country we live in today, I left terrified and heartbroken that the United States hasn’t made any obvious progress since those days. So much of the imagery presented in this film seems like it could have been taken straight from last night’s TV news broadcast. The film’s themes, which include police brutality, racial relations, and social injustice, don’t seem too far removed from the kinds of headlines that we read on a regular basis.
So while this film’s self-professed main goal is to shed light on a tragedy that hasn’t gotten the attention it should have and give some semblance of justice to those wronged on that night, it’s also even more important than that. Yes, it’s a period piece in a sense, as it recreates an entirely authentic 1960s Detroit and the political and social climates of the time, but it also serves as a reflection of today’s society and the same problems that we continue to face today.
Somehow, I wasn’t expecting that level of social commentary when first going into this movie, and whether that was intentional on the filmmakers’ parts, I can’t say. But what I can say is, the film as a whole left me disturbed in ways I wasn’t anticipating.
The first half an hour or so establishes the surrounding drama to the much more secluded incident of focus. An out-of-place animation chronicles the African American struggle in this country ever since the very beginning. This sequence isn’t out of place because it’s thematically irrelevant, though; it’s because, stylistically, it doesn’t fit in with Bigelow’s handheld, guerrilla style of directing.
Through her gritty and intense lens, we see a crumbling Detroit as an enraged black community riot against the justice system who continuously seek to abuse them. Although I have never been a fan of the pseudo-documentary style that some directors often employ to give their films an extreme layer of realism, it fit the setting and tone quite well, even if the constant shaky camera and crash-zooms grew tiresome.
With the context established, the film moves on to the real meat of the story: the Algiers Motel incident. This is where the movie took a turn from being a standard historical drama to something entirely different. Yes, it was still recreating true events from the recent past, but not only does it present some of the most horrifying scenarios you’re likely to see in a mainstream film all year, but it also brings forth a story that legitimately took place in the real world.
A disclaimer at the end of the film states that, due to a general lack of known information, certain aspects of the story had to be dramatized. But as it stands, these things did happen. Innocent lives were lost, and if they survived, they were changed forever.
A standout scene for me was watching two of the men being held up seizing an opportunity and attempting an escape. There’s no music or special effects – just atmosphere, incredible performances, and intense direction. It was during this middle hour that depicts the Motel incident where the film was at its very best.
The performances all-around were phenomenal, with three actors truly serving as highlights. The first was John Boyega. We all know this guy is a movie star, but he shows an all-new side to his abilities that he’d never really gotten the chance to show up until now. Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a small-time security guard posted across the street from the Motel. When the national guard roles up to patrol the nearby city streets, Dismukes offers them coffee as a gesture of good will.
There’s an obvious sincerity and kindness in Boyega’s character, which makes the journey he takes all the more tragic. As a man of the law, he’s forced to witness the atrocities at the Motel and keep silent, but the pain in his eyes is real, and it solidifies Boyega as one of young Hollywood’s best.
The second is a newcomer, Algee Smith, who plays the frontman of the up and coming Motown group the Dramatics. He finds himself at the wrong place at the worst of times, and the proverbial scars he takes with him from that night would last a lifetime.
The third is Will Poulter, who plays a horrifically-racist cop, and the one largely responsible for the violence in the Motel that night. There are hardly words fitting enough to describe just how terrifying Poulter is in this role. He commands the screen for nearly an hour as his seething rage and hatred repulse you by the second. It’s a character filled with pure, unrelenting evil, and Poulter is a revelation here.
After the events at the Algiers Motel conclude, the film continues for at least another half an hour as it chronicles the court cases in which the cops present that night are deemed “not guilty” and justice to those wronged is left unfulfilled. It’s an important part of the overall story, but the film’s pacing noticeably drags and it isn’t nearly as riveting as the second act. It’s absolutely necessary, but could have been depicted in a much more concise way.
While imperfect, this film deserves to be seen. As the film’s marketing states, this is the largest spotlight that this tragedy has received thus far. It’s a horrible time in the United States’ history, and one that warrants far more attention.
The Verdict: Detroit is a story so sickeningly and shamefully real that it still manages to feel brutally relevant in today’s society. Despite running a little too long for its own good, the overall experience will leave you horrified, just as it should.