When I first read the descriptions for “Detroit”, I knew this movie would be potentially intense and emotional in that it depicts rioting and police brutality. Given the director, Kathryn Bigelow, has garnered awards for Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, I had high hopes for the quality and caliber of the film. It was gut wrenching, harsh, and while dramatized, captured the sense of injustice and the emotions of the time. While it might be difficult to absorb, the film is emotional and well crafted.
“Detroit” is a fictionalized account of an event that occurred during 1967 Detroit riots. The riots are set off when the police raid an illegal bar inflaming racial tensions when more than eighty partiers are arrested. The setup introduces the simmering violence through stylized pictures with captions explaining the racial inequalities of the time. When the bar is raided, all the anger boils to the surface. Both rioters and police are shown escalating the violence while we’re introduced to the primary participants of the main event of the film, the fictional character of Detroit police officer Krauss (Will Poulter), Security officer Dismukes (John Boyega), singer Larry Cleveland Reed (Algee Smith) and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore).
On July 25th, Larry and Fred take refuge from the riots in Algiers Motel, an 11 dollar a day residence that was a center for prostitution and regularly raided by the police. While there, they meet two white women, Julie (Hannah Murphy) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). The police and Michigan state patrol as well as the National Guard are posted nearby. Dismukes is working security at a store across the street and attempting to keep peace in the area. After midnight, shots are heard and a contingent of law enforcement descend on the building. They see activity in the windows, shoot out the windows, and enter the building.
During the remainder of the night, the police interrogate the residents. One of the men, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) is shot as the police enter the building, the rest are brutalized as the police try to identify the shooter. One of the men in the motel is Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie), a soldier returning from the war. He alongside the others are hauled out of their rooms and lined up against a wall. The National Guard and the Michigan State Patrol are shown departing the situation, abdicating responsibility while Krauss and his fellow officers, Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor) beat and terrorize the occupants. The men are dragged into rooms, intimidated with threats or gunfire and threatened to stay quiet or be killed. The women are harassed for consorting with the black men, the police believing them to be prostitutes and physically demoralized. Dismukes enters and attempts to assist but wisely remains silent to prevent antagonizing the police further. At the end of the evening, his silence is not enough, two other men are dead and the rest released with threats to remain silent about the events of the night.
The aftermath is no surprise to anyone paying any attention to the history of the time or the injustice of the actual event. Dismukes, even though he cooperated, was still arrested as the initial suspect for the deaths of the three men. He’s released but eventually leaves Detroit. Despite the deaths of the three innocent black men, the police officers are declared not guilty. While two of the officers confess, the courts throw their confessions out, determining them to be gathered unlawfully. We also are witness to the emotional impact on Larry and the families of the dead men. While the beginning of the film highlights the reasons for the riots, the heart of the story is this event and the almost sickening power play of the police. While it is dramatized, there is still a haunting authenticity to the men’s actions. The message is about racial hatred and the criminality of the mostly white police force, the brutality and violence. It is evident that the filmmakers felt that justice was poorly served in the events and that the police were not held accountable. It is easy to make a connection to the events fifty years past to the current climate and see how little has truly changed. Given the theme, the film while intense and emotional is carefully constructed to depict the frightening effects of the tense climate of the riots alongside the mania of police in a hostile situation.
Bigelow and her collaborator Boal, the writer of the film, are careful in their construction of the events. They weave newspaper and film clips of both the riots and the Algiers incident into the movie, allowing the factual accounts to highlight the intensity of the riots and inform the viewer of the background surrounding the main story. They illustrate the tension of the police, terrified that they’ll come under sniper fire and portray the anger and fear of the citizens of Detroit, some participating in the fire and destruction, some merely trying to survive. Alongside the almost sickening actions of three officers, they show Larry found by other officers and taken to the hospital. They illustrate the anger of one of the homicide detectives over the actions of the three officers as well as the attempt to prosecute those actions in court. While I question how well Bigelow and Boal, both white, can understand the experience of the black people of Detroit, they do root the viewer in the potency of the scenes, allowing you to feel the savagery of the police and the hopelessness of the men and women trapped in the Algiers motel.
The acting is impeccable. While the story is at times too vivid, the actors make you feel the emotions underpinning the actions of all involved. John Boyega gives an intense performance, showing both Dismukes toughness in the situation as well as his fear once he is arrested. Algee Smith as Larry is poignant as he recovers from the events. Jacob Latimore is equal parts sweet and fierce as Fred Temple. Hannah Murphy as Julie draws the eye and gives a compelling performance. Anthony Mackie as Greene is calm and his acting is heartfelt. Will Poulter plays Krauss as a man attempting to maintain law but losing the battle as he imposes his will on the occupants of the motel. The performances tie together the emotions of the scenes and allow the viewer to connect to the story.
Bigelow does a terrific job of increasing the tension throughout the setup and maintaining it through the events in the motel. It is the aftermath where the pacing falters for me. While there are key elements explored, including the reactions of Larry and Dismukes to the events of the night and showing the grief of the families of the deceased men, parts of the story drag at this point. Whether it is due to the court scenes or the less than subtle emphasis of the injustices perpetrated, the scenes are uneven and seem longer than necessary.
If you are looking for a movie to entertain, I wouldn’t recommend this for entertainment. This is a film meant to inform, to educate, to provoke discussion and commentary. In the end, it allows the viewer to learn about both a horrifying moment of violence but also makes us all wonder how much racial inequality still exists, to question ways to make change. While it not a comfortable film to watch, I found it enlightening and thought provoking.