Film Review: Detroit

by Carrie Kahn on July 28, 2017

Bigelow’s intense, harrowing film remains fiercely relevant

A city under siege: Detroit, July, 1967.

“It’s hard to believe this could happen in America,” a character says in Detroit, director Kathryn Bigelow’s grim but brilliantly effective new film about the 1967 Detroit riots and their aftermath. But for those of us watching exactly 50 years later, such believing is all too easy — and that’s perhaps the most disheartening take away from Bigelow’s gut-punch of a film.

Bigelow here once again teams with screenwriter Mark Boal; their previous efforts earned them both Oscars (Director, Picture, and Original Screenplay) for 2008’s The Hurt Locker, and multiple nominations for 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. With Detroit, their collaboration continues its recipe for success, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the new picture picks up similar nominations come awards season. Bigelow’s quick cut, cinema vérité style pairs well with Boal’s sparse but sharp dialog, and the combination yields a taut, well-crafted film in which every scene carries tremendous weight, and no shot is wasted.

Security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is interrogated by police.

To portray a story of such monumental historical depth and continuing relevance, Bigelow and Boal wisely narrow their focus, and use a triptych approach. The picture opens with the event that was the catalyst for the riots: in July, 1967, the mostly white Detroit police raid an unlicensed, after hours club in a predominantly African American neighborhood, an act that becomes the proverbial last straw for the beleaguered community, who respond with raw anger and no-cares-left-to-give looting, arson, and destruction (a brief animated prologue that opens the picture informs us of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South after WWI, and white flight to the suburbs after WWII, leaving many cities segregated and ghettoized).

The middle and longest section of the three-part story comes next, as Bigelow and Boal take us into the center of an incident that for years was unknown outside of Detroit; Bigelow has said in interviews she wanted to rectify that, and bring this story to the attention of the rest of the world. The Algiers Motel Incident, as it came to be known, involved the point blank murder by white Detroit police officers of three unarmed, young African-American men in a motel in Detroit’s Virginia Park neighborhood in the midst of the riot chaos. This incident becomes the heart of the film, and Bigelow directs this section masterfully, creating unbearable, you-are-there tension, and allowing us to viscerally feel the disbelief and despair of those subject to the unchecked police brutality, and the absolute, unparalleled horror of the situation in its entirety.

Bigelow closes the triptych with the arrests and trial of the three policemen involved in the motel shootings, and includes a coda about some of the survivors, which adds another layer of heartbreak to the already devastating story. Although in 1968 author John Hersey wrote a book (The Algiers Motel Incident) about the affair, Bigelow apparently couldn’t get the rights, so a disclaimer at the film’s end advises us that much of what’s preceded has been a dramatization of facts culled from court records, eye witness testimony, and other documents.

Officer Krauss (Will Poulter, l.) tries to intimidate Vietnam vet Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie) at the Algiers Motel.

As such, many of the actual names of the real players have been changed here, but that doesn’t lessen the power of the story, or detract from the many impressive performances. With so many figures at play, the film wisely doesn’t focus on a single protagonist, but instead follows several different characters through the incident and its aftermath. Of the standouts, Will Poulter (The Revenant) is absolutely chilling as the most racist and amoral of the three Detroit police officers. With a baby face that can look both simultaneously frightened and hateful, Poulter creates an indelible portrait of a very young man thrown into a position of power who has absolutely no regard for anyone but himself and his own righteousness.

Similarly, both Algee Smith as Cleveland Larry Reed, a musician whose only crime is to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and John Boyega (The Force Awakens) as a security officer unwillingly placed into the Motel situation, are both exceptional, as they allow us to see how the incident continues to haunt them long after it’s over. And Anthony Mackie (also in The Hurt Locker), playing a Vietnam vet utterly thrown by what’s happening to him in the country he fought to protect, conveys his rage and incredulity in a poignant, stirring performance.

Detroit is not an easy film to watch, but it’s an important one that, by provoking outrage and anguish, will keep this county’s issues of racial disparity and divisiveness at the forefront of the national conversation. When you think that Ryan Coogler’s 2013 equally painful, Bay Area-set Fruitvale Station covers a similar story (and just one of many that could be told) from some 45-plus years after the Detroit incidents, you realize just how little has changed since the events depicted in Bigelow’s film, and how far yet we still have to come.


Detroit opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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