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Review: Detroit (2017)

Detroit (2017)

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

Premise: Based on true events. In the midst of the 1967 Detroit Riot, a group of people take shelter in the Algiers Motel. Police and National Guardsmen descend upon the motel and interrogate the guests, believing one of them is a sniper. 

What Works: Detroit is the latest film from Kathryn Bigelow who previously directed 2008’s The Hurt Locker and 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow’s work consistently takes place in masculine subcultures and examines how violence shapes individuals. Detroit builds upon the techniques and ideas of Bigelow’s filmography and elevates them to a new artistic high. This is Bigelow’s most complex film and it’s also one of her best. Detroit takes place amid the 1967 riot in which tensions between the African American community and the city’s mostly white police force boiled over into five days of arson, looting, and violence. Working from a script by Mark Boal, who also wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers begin Detroit by dramatizing the start of the riot when police raid an unlicensed after hours nightclub. The raid precipitates civil unrest and Detroit does an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere of aggression and chaos. While it is a dramatization, Detroit nevertheless has a documentary feel. The production design looks of its time and the dramatic scenes meld seamlessly with the stock footage. Detroit was shot digitally but it looks appropriately analog in a way that enhances the impression of authenticity. The first portion of Detroit gives an overview of the riot while establishing the characters and assembling them at the Algiers Motel. Once everyone is in place Detroit becomes a very intimate film as the police gather on the scene and brutally interrogate the guests. This portion of the movie is harrowing and it is extraordinary how the filmmakers maintain such unbearable tension for so long. That’s partly due to the movie’s performances. Everyone in Detroit is great but among the standouts is John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes, a private security guard who gets caught up in the events. Boyega’s character is African American but because he wears a uniform he’s perceived positively by the cops and viewed with suspicion by fellow blacks. That tension is evident throughout Boyega’s performance. Also notable is Will Poulter as policeman Philip Krauss. Poulter’s character is violent but it’s his self-righteousness that makes him so frightening. The cast also includes Algee Smith as singer Larry Reed. This character goes through an extraordinary transformation over the course of the night and through him the movie visualizes the lasting trauma of racism and violence.

What Doesn’t: Detroit is not a pleasant film to watch. It is, in fact, quite grueling. That isn’t a flaw of Detroit; this film is effective, relevant, and even important because its unpleasantness reveals something ugly but true about power, race, and perception. But viewers should go into Detroit knowing that this movie is a tough watch. If there is any flaw to Detroit, it’s the lack of depth among the police officers. The movie establishes them early on and adequately characterizes Krauss and his partners. But they are never more than racists with a badge. The film does not allow them the complexity of a character like Matt Dillon’s corrupt police officer in 2005’s Crash. The officers’ behavior in Detroit is murderous and unacceptable but part of the function of drama is to allow viewers to empathize with otherwise dastardly people. The 1967 Detroit Riots thrust beat cops into a warzone, a situation that they were not professionally or psychologically prepared for. The film doesn’t much consider this in its storytelling and so the movie misses an opportunity to investigate the racist mindset.

Bottom Line: Detroit is an extraordinary film. It is simultaneously engaging in visceral, emotional, and intellectual ways. This may not be a good time at the movies but it is a masterpiece.

Episode: #660 (August 13, 2017)