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Detroit (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 18, 2020


DETROIT (2017)

Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, Nathan Davis Jr., Peyton ‘Alex’ Smith, Malcolm David Kelley, Joseph David Jones, Laz Alonso, Ephraim Sykes, Leon Thomas III, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Chalk, Jeremy Strong, Austin Hebert, Miguel Pimentel and Khris Davis.

Screenplay by Mark Boal.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

Distributed by Annapurna Pictures. 143 minutes. Rated R.

Since director Kathryn Bigelow’s return to prominence about a decade ago, she has pretty much specialized in filming tense and extremely serious looks at war zones.

In the 80s and 90s she specialized in sensational action fare like Point Break and Blue Steel. She’d pretty much been forgotten when her small Iraq war film The Hurt Locker exploded onto the scene like an WMD in 2008, winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. In 2012, her follow-up Zero-Dark Thirty also was a true story based upon the Middle East Conflict – a claustrophobic and detailed examination of the mission which led to the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden.

Five years later, she is back with Detroit. The film is yet another true story, about a very different type of war zone, but one that was no less intense. Even though the film took place in the United States, rather than Iraq or Pakistan, it continues and expands upon Bigelow’s late-career winning streak. And, sadly, it shares the desperation and inhumanity of the previous films all too much for our liking.

Detroit turns Bigelow’s unflinching, journalist’s gaze upon the 1967 Detroit race riots, specifically the incident in the Algiers Motel in which three black teenagers were killed, and nine others (seven black men and two white women) were beaten and/or shamed by local policemen. The officers were sure that someone had shot at them from one of the motel’s windows, and they went far beyond their legal purviews to find the gun and the shooter. (It turned out to be a never-found starter’s pistol.)

It’s incendiary stuff, particularly in a world atmosphere of the clash between the Black Lives Matter movement and the opposing pro-cop Blue Lives Matter faction. In a world where just less than a week ago, Donald Trump “joked” about police brutality at a speech to law-enforcement officers at Suffolk County Community College, causing the Police to apologize for the sitting President, it’s obviously still a political time bomb.

However, Detroit is also a story about people, some innocent, some not so innocent, who get caught up in the mob mentality.

It is here that Bigelow’s “just the facts, ma’am” filmmaking style both serves the story and ultimately slightly betrays the characters. Detroit is painting with a broad brush – multiple characters and a frenzy of violence – which is shocking to see and experience. However, the expanse of the film has a slight negative effect, simply on a story-telling level, we don’t always get to know the characters and their motivations as well as we should.

This is particularly true of the main antagonist, Officer Philip Krauss, played by William Poulter. Krauss is a fictionalized version of the real policeman involved in the incident, whose name was David Senak. Krauss is pretty much portrayed as a loose cannon and a racist, but he is not given much shading or complexity, and thus his evil acts come off as a bit scripted. Was the real man simply just a violent, out-of-control racist? Maybe. However, it feels a little bit convenient for the storyline. Every man has his reasons.

That said, Poulter does a terrific job in the role.

Also under-explored a bit is local security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a basically good man who takes it upon himself to make sure things don’t get out of hand. This is despite the fact that he is looked down on by both sides – the blacks see him as a cop wannabe, the police see him as just another black man in the way. He inserts himself into the situation, attempting with little success to keep a semblance of order, and also to protect the civilians. If Krauss comes off as a bit of a by-the-numbers bad guy, Dismukes is given the opposite role, someone who appears to be good for goodness sake. Again, perhaps that is who the man really was, but it feels like a bit of a cop-out dramatically.

Despite this slight concern, Boyega is amazing in the role, too.

Perhaps the most intriguing character here – certainly one given the most latitude for both good and bad – is an upcoming soul singer named Larry Reed (Algee Smith), whose ride to chart stardom with the local group The Dramatics is derailed by the violence he witnesses. The Dramatics soon afterwards had several hits such as “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get,” but Reed had left the group by then due to his experience. Reed is simply an innocent bystander, a good man with certain moral gray areas who is dragged against his will into a hellish situation which cannot help but change him fundamentally.

However, Detroit is not a movie so much about individuals as it is about a mob mentality and lack of control. And, as is Bigelow’s specialty, about surviving relatively intact in a war zone. Detroit is a horrifying and depressing film in some ways, but it is also vital storytelling. Don’t be surprised to hear Bigelow’s name mentioned at Oscar time again.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: August 2, 2017.

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