TL;DR – Brutal, heartbreaking, and unfortunately as relevant today as it was in the 1960s
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
Oh wow, I had no idea what to expect going into Detroit, only that it was taking a snapshot of the past event in the city. This was good in some respects because I came into the film with no preconceptions, but also I came into the film with zero preparation for what was about to come. I walked out of Detroit being completely emotionally drained, and I don’t mean that as a criticism, where so many other films like mother! (see review) have mishandled the use of tension, Detroit had me on the edge of my seat waiting for the moment when everything falls apart.
So to set the scene, it is 1967 and there has been brewing tensions in cities across America due to the conduct of the police, unofficial segregation, and lack of opportunities to succeed. This tension in Detroit which was simmering under the surface boils over one night when police break up a private party for African-American soldiers returning home from the Vietnam War. However, they are not able to take them out the back, so the arrests happen in full view of an agitated community, and this became the spark that ignited the 1967 Detroit Riot (also known as the 12th Street Riot) part of the Long hot summer of 1967. As the riot expands, buildings are burnt down, businesses are looted, and the State Police and National Guard are called in to help, which only escalated tensions. It is within this powder keg that we meet our main characters and get set on a collision course at the Algiers Motel. Now as this is history it is not something you can really spoil, but I was unaware of the details doing in and I think that might be best for engaging with the film. Now from this point onwards, there may be some [SPOILERS], however for those who haven’t seen it the quick answer is that I highly recommend it.
This is one of those movies where it is hard to work out where to start when discussing it, because everything kind of flows into each other. So let’s start with the first act that sets up the three central narratives that come into a collision course later in the film. The start of the film is a mixture of historical footage and recreated scenes. This is presented at a frantic pace at times, jumping and cutting around with heavy use of shaky camera. Normally, I find this style of filmmaking to be annoying, but it works here, because it gives that impression of a war unfolding and a sense of growing chaos. It is here that we are introduced to Krauss (Will Poulter), Demens (Jack Reynor), and Flynn (Ben O’Toole), Detroit City Police officers who are driving through the streets full of smoke and rubble, musing about where they and society went wrong to end up with the city like this. From the moment we meet these police officers there is something unsettling about their calmness in the face of carnage, which is confirmed when Krauss shoots an unarmed looter in the back, because he could. Almost as a reflection of this, we have Dismukes (John Boyega), a man who works multiple jobs trying to get by, including night time security. He is in a position of authority, which puts him at odds with both the police and the rioters, however, he is trying to do the right thing and be a bridge. Finally, as the situation worsens across the city we meet The Dramatics a RnB group hoping to finally make it big when the riot forces their theatre to close before they can perform. On the way home the band becomes separated and lead signer Larry (Algee Smith) and best friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) decide to hold up at The Algiers overnight. It is here where they meet two white ladies Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) and start to have a good time when Carl (Jason Mitchell) decides to fire his starter gun out the window and all hell breaks loose. Now I’ve taken a bit more time than normal to set out the structure of the film, and this is because it is a film that has a lot of moving parts during the first act that all crash into each other in the second act, and you can’t really understand the film without understanding the relationships, and once they do crash into each other the truly horrific part of the film starts.
Detroit is a film that at its heart is about encapsulating the failure of people and institutions on screen, what happened at the Algiers Motel was completely and utterly preventable. The head of homicide told Krauss he was going to be charged with murder, but then let him keep working, he also told him inadvertently how to stage a crime scene. After everyone in the motel was rounded up it was painfully obvious to everyone involved that the police were unhinged and acting outside the rule of law. The State Police were advised of what was happening and could have gone in and stopped it, but they didn’t want to get involved in potential civil rights claim, what cowards. The National Guard could have stopped them, but they let the police continue until it has already gone on too far. Indeed, even the police themselves could have stopped it from going any further if they had paid attention to what was going on. The failures continue throughout the film until the end as well.
Now, of course, Detroit is also a film about race and this is where things get complicated for me. Look, I am a white middle-class man discussing a film about race relations in a country I don’t live in. So I’m not sure if it is an issue that film about the brutality of white police officers was written, directed, filmed, edited and scored by a non-African-American crew. However, this aside one of the clearest themes is that of moral superiority, the police officers see themselves as the arbiters of moral right, and so they feel justified to dole out punishments as they see fit. You see this in how they classify people, and how they react so negatively when they find the women in the room with Greene (Anthony Mackie), like they had betrayed their fellow kind. Also with how the police were more than ready to beat and pretend to shoot the hostages to elicit a confession from one of them, even when they reach the conclusion that there wasn’t a gun to find. Now, of course, they would not feel comfortable to engage in these behaviours if they were not systemic behaviours of the police.
One of the highlights of Detroit is the performances of all the cast, and some of those scenes would not have been easy to film take after take. Now I’m going to talk about the ending in a bit, and of course [SPOILERS] but John Boyega will get nominated for an Oscar and it will be on the groundwork of this scene. Dismukes is brought in to be questioned, and he sits there he starts giving them his statement assuming he is helping with their investigation. It is here where he discovers that he is the one being investigated, and you see this realisation play across his performance in such subtitle yet powerful ways. The whole cast gives amazing performances, and given the stressful second act, I don’t know how they kept that level of emotion up for weeks on end during the shoot. This is where the attention to detail is so important, how as the night goes on and things start to fall apart you see it in the actor’s performances as well as the costume and makeup/hair.
Now even though I think Detroit is a powerful film and I do think people should go see it, it is not without some issues. First, some of the character motivations needed to get everyone at the Algiers Motel feel a bit forced at times. It also suffers from issues with how to end the film. When you have a film based on real-life events, it makes ending the film a much more difficult job, because life rarely fits neatly into a three-act structure. Unfortunately for Detroit, after such a high-intensity second act, anything that followed was going to pale in comparison, which is compounded by you kind of knowing the outcome of the trail before you even get to it. This grinds the film almost to a halt though we do get John Krasinski playing one of the most repugnant characters in cinema this year.
In the end, I do recommend Detroit, I can’t say you’ll enjoy it or be entertained by it, but you will be gripped by the movie. Indeed, it might be helpful for people to see it because it will help contextualise issues that they have never had to deal with so they don’t understand them. Also, unfortunately, it is important to go see Detroit because even though it is a film set in the 60s its message is just as relevant today as it was back then.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Detroit
Directed by – Kathryn Bigelow
Written by – Mark Boal
Based on – The events of 1967 Detroit Riot
Music by – James Newton Howard
Cinematography by – Barry Ackroyd
Edited by – William Goldenberg & Harry Yoon
Starring – John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Anthony Mackie, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole & John Krasinski
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: na; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R