Film review – Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2017)

As I sat alone in the local multiplex chain cinema, watching the fellow viewers trickling in, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the couple on a date a few rows in front of me. They’d stocked up for the next couple of hours with the standard fare: a popcorn tub bigger than their own heads, a couple of XL soft drinks, a pouch full of chocolate nibbles. They may well have been wearing Star Wars t-shirts, hoping to see lead actor John Boyega in something other than Poe Dameron’s jacket, but I didn’t quite see. The point is, they almost certainly had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. To some extent, neither did I.

As a British man in his early 30s, the real tragedy of the 1967 Detroit Riots were largely lost on me until the announcement of Kathryn Bigelow’s film. It’s a film seeking to shed light on the events that unfolded at the Algiers Motel as part of the 12th Street Riot. Whilst the motives behind making the film may have been perfectly justifiable when its production was announced in January 2016, the poignancy of its release over the backdrop of the recent events in Charlottesville could only be lost on the most unaware of cinema goers.

The film is split into three acts. The first provides a backdrop to the riots and the status of the never-ending and constantly evolving racial tensions across the USA. This act also serves to introduce some of the key players in the film: Boyega stars as diplomatic security guard Melvin Dismukes; Will Poulter portrays trigger-happy policeman Philip Kraus; Algee Smith is aspiring singer and performer Larry Reed; Hannah Murray features as young female Julie Ann.

The final act is essentially a courtroom drama that covers the fallout from the middle portion, which is a breathtaking piece of cinema that Bigelow has chosen to tell in realtime. Kraus heads up a police operation to discover what is believed to be a sniper rifle fired from the Algiers Motel, with a group of innocent black men standing accused along with two white girls. The racism is evident, driving the policemen’s actions and words to breaking point, leaving several people dead and the remainder with horrific memories of the night.

It is overwhelmingly upsetting and unsettling, made even worse by the fact it is based on accounts of real events. It seems unfathomable that anyone could watch this and not wince. It’s certainly something that has stayed fresh in my mind since I saw the film, which gives me a fraction of an idea of what it must be like for the survivors of the incident.

John Boyega’s performance is perfectly nuanced as he stands by almost helpless, doing what he can to keep the accused alive. As a security guard he is afforded a degree of respect, though it is respect that is only uniform deep. It’s not an easy role to pull off. The scene in the police interrogation room that kicks of Act 3 is almost as horrifying as what has come before, and it is in this scene that Boyega really shows his acting mettle.

Will Poulter is also worth pulling out as the extraordinarily derisible policeman Kraus. It may just be so good that he will suffer typecasting for the rest of his career. The role is written so you can do nothing but hate him, but not every actor can achieve this with such little charm. That’s deliberate and is thus a genuine triumph by Poulter.

Detroit has seemingly fallen away at the box office now, failing to recoup the production costs. In a week where The Emoji Movie continues to run having made a global profit of over $30m, I can’t help but wonder whether escapism is the order of the day for film fans at the moment. Why would we want to see a long film like this when it seems to be on the news every week anyway?

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4 Comments

  1. I haven’t seen the film, so take this with a grain of salt. “Detroit” may be an entertaining film (in a disturbing way), but Hollywood today is extremely politically correct, and I question whether this film is an honest appraisal of events in Detroit in ’67. From your review, and from what I’ve read elsewhere, am I correct in assuming the cops are the only villains?

    Reply

    1. Hey. Thanks for the comment. You definitely need to see the film. As a piece of cinema, it’s extremely effective and horrific. Taking arguments of accuracy out of the equation, there’s no arguing it isn’t one of best films I’ve seen this year.

      In terms of the accuracy of the content, the first third of the film does a good job of showing a balanced view of the situation that gives a good backdrop to the riot in general, which provides a good context to the Algiers Motel incident itself. In terms of the incident itself, the blame is laid primarily on the one policeman Krauss. Of course, this is cinema and even the most accurate of films will take artistic licences to some degree. Do we know whether it’s 100% accurate? Well, no. Three of the people in the motel were killed so their accounts are lost forever, some other statements were deemed void due to the accused not being read their constitutional rights.

      I’ll always take the accuracy of films with a pinch of salt, but even if only elements of this story are true it’s a horrific thing to consider happening.

      Reply

  2. I’ll check it out. Sounds like a well-made movie. The “honest” in my comment refers not only to whether the Algiers Hotel scenes are staged accurately, but whether or not focusing on the Algiers Hotel gives a slanted view of the riots. Most Americans, rightly or wrongly, associate the Detroit riots (and Watts in L.A.) with black anger over civil rights abuses by white cops and other whites. But it sounds like the bulk of this movie is about anger and violence by the COPS when, in reality, the Algiers Hotel incident was isolated, and unrepresentative of the greater picture. Also, I lived in Detroit in ’68-’69, just after the events. We were in the suburbs, and I was only 10. The word “Detroit” for me only conjures good memories, of swimming in the summer, Motown music, visits to Greenfield Village, the World Series-winning Detroit Tigers, etc. So the title for this movie (I think) gives a mistaken and negative impression that the entire city was a cauldron of hate and violence. It wasn’t. Not sure why Bigelow chose to title this movie “Detroit,” other than one-word titles are popular these days, but Detroit is much more than the 1967 riots.

    Thanks for listening, and for the review!

    Reply

    1. Not a problem at all. It sounds like you had a really happy childhood there and I can see why you’d be unhappy with the title of the film.

      On a completely different level I experienced the same thing with the film Frank, released a couple of years ago. Okay film but absolutely nothing to do with Frank Sidebottom, which made me wonder why they’d used his likeness. Just call it Harold and change the shape of the helmet and you’d have an equally-good film.

      From my point of view (I’m a white male living in the UK), the content of the film is extremely relevant and the kinds of things that happen in the film are still happening in the USA and UK, so I still feel like it’s extremely relevant. But it’s great to hear your context and point of view, because otherwise I wouldn’t know it at all!

      Reply

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