Powerful. Painful. Difficult to watch. Impactful.
Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, has now completed her third true story to film, as she tells a story set during the Detroit race riots of 1967. This is a period of time that I am unfamiliar with, so I entered Detroit without any preconceived expectations.
But here is the thing that I think the film has misrepresented about itself. Honestly, I do not think that the movie is about the Detroit riots. This film is centered about the events that happened at the Algiers Motel on one night during the Detroit riots. Because the riots are in the background, there had to be attention paid to them, but the film’s main story beat certainly occurs during the second act when the Algiers Motel comes into play.
Historically, the Detroit Police responded to someone firing a gun from the Algiers Motel (according to the film, the gun was actually a starter’s pistol) and a small group of Detroit policemen took the motel’s residents and lined them up against the wall and basically attempted to torment and torture them into a confession.
Because there was such a group of individuals involved in this movie, the first act does play as jumbled, because each of these characters needed to be introduced and their reasons for arriving at the Algiers needed to be covered. Add to this the necessary background information on the riots that was presented in the first act, it is no wonder why the first act feels clunky, especially when compared to the tension filled and kick in the stomach that is the second act.
The cast is amazing. Each actor in this film brings perhaps their best work ever. John Boyega, whom despite the trailers is not the main character, brings such a richness to the character of Dismukes. He was a security guard who approached the National Guard and wound up following along after the “sniper” shooting. You can see how Boyega has to walk a tight rope between what he sees happening and being able to justify in his head why it is being done. He believes that the police are on the side of the law, but it is clear that he had issues with some of the tactics.
Another stellar cast member is Gotham’s Jerome, Will Poulter. Poulter plays the main Detroit racist cop who does such tremendously violent and cruel things, despite believing what he was doing was the right thing. Poulter was terrifying and was as frightening as any horror movie monster. You have a visceral reaction to the man and you just wish someone would step up and stop him from doing the heinous things he was doing. I think this was a potential Oscar worthy performance.
If I had to pick, Algee Smith would be the character that would be considered the main character as his story has the most consistent through line through all three acts. Smith played Larry, an up and coming singer whose big break with Motown was ruined because of the riots. This is a character that you see have the most development and the one to whom the story has the most effect.
There are plenty of other strong to great performances here including Jacob Latimore (from Sleight), Ben O’Toole, Jack Reynor, Anthony Mackie, LOST’s own Walt- Malcolm David Kelley, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever and Nathan David Jr.
That second act just busts you in the gut. You feel uncomfortable and helpless. Bigelow successfully places you as the audience in the place of the people being tortured by the cops, and you can’t help but feel not only empathy, but a weakness, a helplessness. It is palatable.
One of the things that hit me personally was how there were so many other people involved in this situation, whether it was John Boyega’s character or National Guard officers who looked at the situation, realized that what was going on was excessive or downright wrong, but none of them did anything about it. They had several scenes of these other members of law enforcement literally turning away and saying that this was “Detroit police’s case.” They did not want to get involved. They did not want to get their hands dirty and, because no one was willing to step up and say the process of what was happening was wrong, innocent people wound up dead. It was very frustrating as a viewer who wanted the story to turn out okay.
Now, I do not think this is a perfect movie. In fact, I would venture to say that the first and third acts of this movie were, at best, okay. I think they both suffer in retrospect because the second act was so compelling and so suspenseful that the resolution just does not, or cannot, match it. Yes, I know that there was only so much you could do at the end since this was a true story, but the presentation of that end was nowhere near as captivating as what had come before it. There was also a strange animated beginning of the film that, seemed fine at the time, but now doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. Honestly, I do not remember much about the animation, so it did not do its job.
This is a powerful movie that made me question why people can be so cruel simply because of a surface difference like skin color. The film clearly connects to the world that we live in today as well, as this is a big theme of the film. However, it is not just a “blame the cops” piece. One of my favorite moments of the late second act was when Larry had been released and he was running, injured and bleeding, through the streets of Detroit, he stumbled across another Detroit police officer who was shocked at what had happened to him and helped him to the hospital. There was nothing about his skin color. He was just an injured man who needed help and this officer helped him. This small moment of humanity is Bigelow’s way of showing that not every police officer was a racist piece of crap. It just happened that the three main Detroit cops in this story were horrible people, but that was not them all. I really appreciated that scene.
This is most likely another film that I will not watch again, but I was glad that I saw. It made me think and it hit me with powerful emotions like a sledgehammer. You should definitely see Detroit because it challenges your thoughts and perceptions of the world.