An unlicensed bar in a black neighbourhood getting bacchanalian with the return of some Vietnam veterans. A nighttime crackdown on said bar by a mostly white police force. A bolted rear entrance forcing the police to line up the arrested bodily on the street in full view of increasingly irate locals. These were all the sparks needed to light the powder keg that was Detroit in 1967.
A simmering mob, angry at The Man for years of social injustices, would rapidly boil over into a full blown riot that gripped America’s “Motor City” for four days as the local police force, bolstered by the Michigan National Guard and US Army paratroopers, clashed with rioters. When the smoke eventually cleared, thousands would be hospitalized/arrested and 43 people would have had died.
Some of those lives were lost under nightmarish conditions at the Algiers Motel, a seedy hangout where young folk went to escape the frantic horror of a city being razed around them. On the third night of rioting though, this rundown safe haven would be turned into a torture chamber, rank with fear and violence when a small police force, led by the hate-filled and racist Phillip Krauss (Will Poulter), storms the Algiers after hearing gunfire coming from its direction. The residents occupying the hotel annex building from which the night-splitting rapports sounded to have come from are all dragged out of their rooms, roughly manhandled and flung up against the wall of a single corridor. And thus the “death game” would begin as Krauss and his cronies, Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor), proceeded to physically and psychologically torture these people in an attempt to locate the alleged sniper that took shots at authorities.
Caught up in this pressure cooker of blood and hatred is Larry (Algee Smith), the lead singer of a promising black RnB group who missed out on a life-changing Motown contract by seconds as the riots forced them to seek shelter. Joining Larry on the wall is his best friend Fred (Jacob Latimore), talked into romantically pursuing Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two young white girls at the Algiers on a break from Ohio. There’s also volatile jokester Carl (Jason Mitchell), world-wise Vietnam veteran Greene (Anthony Mackie) and more. And standing – at least physically – on the side of the police is Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard assigned to protect a local grocery store from looters, also drawn to the Algiers through the sound of gunfire. Dismukes is there trying his best to defuse the situation and make sure everybody makes it through the night. He will fail.
What plays out for most of the film’s 143-minute running time is a study in bubbling tension and violent release. Tears and blood flow freely as Krauss, face contorted maniacally in hate, plays out his game. Batons crunch, prayers are wailed and world-shattering gunshots punctuate it all. The naked brutality is often incredibly uncomfortable to witness, but also hard to tear your eyes away from. And unfortunately, it’s also so familiar it’s sickening.
When director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, fresh off the back to back successes of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, first announced in January 2016 that they would be tackling a movie around the racially charged Detroit rights, they had no idea how topical this movie would be. Actually, that’s wholly inaccurate – while the unthinkable reality of Nazi marches in the American heartland may be happening for real right now, these gross abuses of power on persons of colour have been staining the American flag for hundreds of years. A point that Bigelow drives home from the very first frame as an animated version of Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series of paintings establishes the stage on which this harrowing tale will play out once again.
And it is harrowing indeed. Thanks to powerfully emotive performances from Detroit’s entire cast, and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s uncomfortably close lensing, Bigelow pulls no punches in her delivery. You feel every degradation every bit as much as every truncheon cracking a skull.
Newcomer Algee Smith is especially fantastic, his character being given the biggest character journey of the film as he goes from hopeful dreamer to crushed prisoner and more. And by “biggest”, I really mean “only”. Positively dripping with seething malice, Poulter turns in a career best (or is that worst?) performance as Krauss, a character that didn’t really exist but is an amalgamation of several police officers who were involved. By making him this Big Bad Evil though, the character is robbed of any complexity and goes from being a hateful person to a Movie Villain. Similar fates befall the rest of the cast as they end up playing character types instead of characters.
Boal’s script, pieced together here through various eyewitness accounts of what transpired that night, is so busy with shining a spotlight on the bigger atrocities and their continued blight on modern society – something it does really well – that it fails to build up the people who literally died fighting them. Boal’s attempt to also show that Krauss and his group are outliers, also feels a bit heavy handed. The slogan of “Not All Cops” might as well have been emblazoned across the screen.
There’s also the issue of a shuddering tonal disparity in Detroit. Bigelow opens the film by showing the events leading up to and during the earlier parts of the riots. She lends this opening act a tangible documentary feel, intercutting her shots with actual news reel footage to fantastic effect. This act then pivots into the Algiers Hotel incident – the chunkiest portion of the film – with a perfectly smooth transition. However, the same can definitely not be said of the film’s third act, an overlong wrap-up that feels like it comes from a completely different movie. The point Bigelow and Boal are making with this final sequence is clear, but it feels clumsy in execution.
The end result is a third collaboration between the filmmaking duo that lacks the overall searing focus of their previous two efforts. But even if Detroit’s structure is not quite as sound as it should be, it still lands a barrage of devastating gut punches. What its approach to tackling critically pertinent social issues lacks in subtlety, it makes up in efficacy. This is a film that is often too brutal to witness, but one that also deserves to be seen.
Last Updated: August 18, 2017