REVIEW – Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit Paints A Gut-Wrenching, Yet Still Important Picture

by Joe Hammerschmidt


For anyone who had been living under a rock, know this: cinematic genius Kathryn Bigelow understands humanity at its most brutal like it were a quirk. Her last two films, the Iraqi war thriller The Hurt Locker, and Bin Laden assassination retelling Zero Dark Thirty showed valiance against a dangerous conflict, with the sour side of triumph as a supporting theme. The first noticable difference regarding her newest, simply titled Detroit, is its smaller focus, a conflict of similar nature; while maintaining a wide-bearing backdrop, a city in the midst of a racially-influenced street battle between police and African-American residents avoiding wrongful gentrification. Despite its danger, it’s easier to feel welcome in this world as opposed to the grandeur of Iraq or Pakistan. It’s smaller in its presence, yet still lends its own experiences to a larger narrative, what we can say about the whole of humanity, then and now.

50 years ago, the prospering city of Detroit, MI had faced a dark period in their evolution. The week-long “12th Street Riot” carried a significant impact for race relations. Starting wide through the use of Jacob Laurence paintings, and a myriad of old footage from the days themselves (said pro journalism had been the stuff of legend in itself at the time), Bigelow and frequent collaborating writer Mark Boal eventually shift the focus exclusively on a singular incident. A few unlucky folks find a chance meeting in the hotspot of the Algiers Motel; between them, cocky Larry (Algee Smith) and reserved Fred (Jacob Lattimore), members of yet-to-be-discovered R&B group The Dramatics; Ohio transplants Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) and Julie Ann (Hannah Murray); Greene, a Vietnam Vet (Anthony Mackie); and radical free-thinker Carl (Jason Mitchell), the only person dumb enough to attempt to challenge the already-tense scenario occuring outside of his hotel room along with his newfound “friends.”

A few innocent shots, not aimed toward anyone is enough to cause literally everyone to hover over the hotel. Five black men, two white women are then targeted as possible murder suspects by a clueless trio of white Detroit police officers, the superior (Will Poulter) appearing the most carelessly gruesome, not giving a single moment of care. They immediately vie for ill-fated presumptions and false accusations, whatever they count as “tactics of interrogation”, when in all fairness, it’s the worst case of profiling. Yes, there were gunshots; yes, a fatality occurs in some variant connection; but there is an inherent irresponsibility in play as well, to which the cops less than own up to, and that the legal system of the era lapses in granting sufficient recognition to the actual victims.

Bigelow and Boal are a rightful match, working around a story that deserves its day of retelling. Yet at the same time, an apparent line is crossed multiple times over with its natural grittiness. The intensity/violence of the scenario itself was still effective towards establishing the narrative, though do heed in mind it is not for the squeamish. It’s impossible not to feel for these characters, those who at least deserve it. Poulter as the perpetually angry, spit-in-your-face Krauss plays the strongest of oppositions; a solid A+ performance, even if one isn’t necessarily permitted to root for his values. The calmness of John Boyega, in the committed role of one Melvin Dismukes, a grocery security guard who may have found his in with the other governing authority groups protecting the city, may be what keeps the story as grounded as it can remain through the end. His presence stands as the only steady element through the otherwise painful imagery..

Without having prefaced my experience with this film by way of a trailer, the title Detroit still maintains the allure of its forward-moving setting, yet simultaneously it broadens, even likely cheapens the perspective. I could understand Algiers would not’ve made a stronger selling point, but it would’ve been more truthful to the events made available. Therefore, the one fault may be how unclear Bigelow was just with establishing her own narrative. Archival video of the riots themselves, coupled with the own words of then Michigan governor George Romney could’ve mistakenly given off the feel of a general-interest documentary. At times, the accounts shown, particularly those of the court proceedings (featuring John Krasinski as a steadfast DA, whose presence is noticably appreciated) would belong better in a non-traditional storytelling method.

No matter the error in its own execution, and the lack of sense in expressing sheer fury and madness on behalf of a police force edged out by an oppressed population, this snapshot of Detroit at its most vulnerable will leave a bitter taste in the mouths of moviegoers, yet its poignancy is an important sticking point for why one should embark. It is still structurally watchable through a brilliant ensemble cast bringing a captivating script and the thrill of a thriving metropolis on its feet, despite having filmed in the Boston area due to no available filming opportunities in Michigan, the merits of which qualify it nicely as a potential Oscar contender in 2018, and as a necessary teaching tool for high schools and colleges. Yet you will find it impossible to not walk out a little bitter, and a lot angry for how brutish humanity was, and still is while kept in decreased increments. I was rather shocked, shaken, and tearful throughout, knowing I was experiencing raw torture on display; that being said, take this experience wisely and maturely, and it makes a fair educational opportunity. (A-)

Detroit expands in wide release today; rated R for strong violence and pervasive language; 143 minutes.