For several days now, I’ve struggled to put my thoughts on Kathryn Bigelow’s latest drama, Detroit, down on paper. On the surface, one might be forgiven for thinking this movie is simply about the events of the 12th Street Riot in Detroit, starring a few notable actors. In reality, what viewers are given is a film that, at times, struggles to find its footing, delivers two career-making performances, and ends up being the most harrowing horror film of the year.
As stated above, Detroit is a dramatic retelling of the 12th Street Riot, specifically focusing on the night of July 25, 1967 and a police raid on the Algiers Motel. Bigelow takes liberties with her storytelling, specifically with many of the events toward the end of the night that are, to this day, still unknown. The film features an ensemble cast and, while Bigelow utilizes them effectively, the structure of this particular film suffers a bit from not having a defined lead. The trailers and promotional material would lead you to believe that John Boyega is squarely front and center but, arguably, the co-leads of the film deserve just as much credit, most notably with Will Poulter as the racist, abusive officer named Phillip Krauss who leads the assault on the Algiers and Algee Smith who stars as Larry Reed, a local singer with the group The Dramatics who is caught up in the raid.
This isn’t to say that Boyega does not give a good performance. If nothing else, Boyega’s turn as security guard Melvin Dismukes proves he has acting chops beyond Star Wars and Attack the Block. Boyega’s Dismukes feels out of place throughout the bulk of the second act of the film as Bigelow focuses on the infamous ‘death game’ led by Krauss. For the uninitiated, the ‘death game’ consisted of an officer dragging someone into a room after beating them, hitting them more in the room out of sight of others and then firing a shot into the ground by their heads in order to coerce a false confession out of these victims. Both the horrific reality of this police brutality and the inaction on the part of onlookers are portrayed unflinchingly by Bigelow.
Smith’s Reed takes center stage of one of several subplots in the movie and, along with Jacob Latimore as loyal best friend Fred Temple, serves as the core emotional crux of the film. Smith crafts a performance that holds up throughout his onscreen time. This performance does not pull punches in the second act, unlike the majority of Detroit‘s performances that happen to exist past a primary act. If Smith’s star-making turn as Larry Reed is our emotional, saving crux, then Poulter surely has to be his foil in Phillip Krauss. Poulter proves himself a fearsome and horrific antagonist who embodies generations of racism, bigotry, and hatred. To Krauss, this is all just a game. He blames people of color for everything wrong in the city and considers them to be far beneath him. Poulter’s performance takes what could have been an ineffective and lackluster second act and instead turns it into a horror film and one of the tensest sequences in a film I’ve seen in years.
For as good as the film is as it focuses on the raid on the Algiers, it stumbles in its beginning and ending moments. The first act of Detroit is particularly problematic as it fails to properly account for the motivations behind the inciting elements of the film. Very little context is given outside of a 45-second video that briefly details the migration of people to Detroit. There is no real explanation of the historical tensions in the city or in the country, no reasoning given to the violence on both sides of the issue, and no insight into the mentality of the police department. In a similar conclusive problem, Detroit‘s third act stumbles. The ending of this movie largely focuses on the aftermath of the Algiers Assault and the investigation that followed. Of course, viewers at this stage in the film can properly acquiesce to the conclusion that the ensuing trial inevitably comes to. To Bigelow’s credit, she uses the portrayed events to make a statement about race and brutality which makes things feel relevant to today. However, one cannot hope but wonder if there was a way to circle everything back around to the present day instead of leaving it as a scenario that feels like her team saying “The End. Bye.”
Detroit is a divisive and harrowing film. It surely will earn Bigelow another long run on the awards circuit and Will Poulter is, in my mind, the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor. Unfortunately, the film falters when it matters most. Despite a stellar middle section and serviceable openings and closings acts, the film fails to cast light on most of the inhumane treatment that those involved actually suffered. In fact, one of the biggest issues I took with an otherwise exemplary movie was the portrayal of two white characters who were also at the Algiers. We see them beaten by police officers and the film lingers on these images, while many of those who were arguably harmed more severely and had guns fired off next to their heads are little more than background extras. The film, whether consciously or unconsciously, tries to make viewers care about their plight when, in reality, they were not a huge part of the overall story the film was trying to tell. These characters are given significant screentime that almost feels like prominence over the men who were forced to endure the greater portion of pain throughout the night.
The shortcomings of this film do not lessen the intensity of the overall picture. Brutal, horrific and intense, Detroit is a horror film in every sense of the word. While it may not be Best Picture material like The Hurt Locker, this is yet another hit for Bigelow. Detroit is a movie that deserves to be seen and understood by moviegoers and filmmakers alike. It will surely spark debates for years to come, and I sincerely hope coming out of this that we get better-developed films in relation to civil rights struggles.
Josh’s Score – 9.0 out of 10
When the credits began to roll on Detroit, I sat in silent tears. I am not sure I have ever been more affected in a theater by a film. On a filmmaking level, this is the best drama I’ve seen to date in 2017. Although it stumbles in its execution of key events and makes minor missteps in regards to its ethics, these issues do not prevent it from being an excellently-made film. A film that is destined to be talked about and referenced for months and years to come, Detroit is Bigelow’s riskiest film to date and, as a result, is nothing short of astounding.