OP-ROB RATING: BENCH
“Detroit” is a period drama directed by Kathryn Bigelow about the 12th Street Riot that took place in the city of Detroit, Michigan in 1967. While a slice of the movie is dedicated to showing what ignited the four-day riot, the main focus is on events that took place in the Algiers Motel on July 25th and 26th. The background of what would become known as “The Algiers Motel Incident” was this: in the heat of the riot a group of white Detroit police officers breached the Algiers Motel on the suspicion that a sniper was inside. Upon arriving, the officers gathered up the residents consisting of several young black men, along with two white women. Ultimately, three of the black men were shot and killed in the hotel, while the survivors testified that they had been interrogated and tortured by the Detroit police officers. While Bigelow acknowledges that much is unknown from what happened that night, she strings a tense narrative along certain facts, and statements made by those involved.
After a brief illustrated introduction explains the Great Migration and the growing civil unrest in Detroit, the opening live-action scenes of the film portray the event that sparked the riot. A group of Detroit Police Officers storm a local speakeasy and proceed to force the partygoers outside into the street. You can see the commanding officers get antsy as angry residents of the neighborhood crowd the area. Soon after the police evacuate with their prisoners, the crowd breaks into a destructive riot.
Once the chaos is spread city-wide, we are introduced to Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), a reckless and hateful police officer who guns down an unarmed looter in the street. Krauss, along with some comparably evil cops soon descend on the Algiers Motel where they suspect sniper fire. A good-hearted, but hesitant black security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) goes along with them. Inside the Motel they find several young black men and two white women, all of whom we have been introduced to and know to be innocent. However, Krauss and his men are determined to find a gun, and begin to harass their captives. The story unfolds from there.
From start to finish, “Detroit” is very straightforward. Poulter and Boyega are solid leads, and the tortured youth are strongly portrayed by Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Jacob Lattimore, Hannah Murray, Nathan Davis Jr., and Kaitlyn Dever. After the incident, John Krasinski shows up as the slick lawyer to defend the cops in court. Bigelow’s direction is consistent and assured, and in the scenes of rioting there is shocking and powerful imagery. Yet, “Detroit” is not a pleasant viewing. Many scenes make you churn inside with their brutality and intensity.
However, the most powerful scene in “Detroit” does not take place inside the terror-ridden Algiers Motel, nor does it take place in the raging streets of Detroit. Rather, it is staged in a quiet house where the father of a victim returns home early from work having received a call that his son may be dead. The father, portrayed by Gbenga Akinnagbe, solemnly collects a stack of picture frames to bring to the morgue for body identification. We know that his son is dead, and it seems that he does as well. It is a moment in the film in which seconds feel like hours. Such moments are rare in “Detroit”, which is dominated by nerve-rattling horror. Someone leaving the theater mentioned that by the end of the ordeal at the Algiers, they felt numbed to all the violence. Films should never have that effect if they desire to convey a message.
By the end of the film I think most people will feel some blend of frustrated, angry, and saddened. Some might just feel stunned. But what comes after the film are grand questions. From one viewpoint, “Detroit” visualizes how difficult it is to be good police. The riot starts because of a harmless party, that was indeed serving alcohol without a liquor license. That is illegal, and brings into question when and where cops draw the line. Furthermore, the film made me question what it takes for an officer to perform his job in a racially charged atmosphere, whether that be Detroit in 1967 or Chicago in 2017. As for the victims, it prompts the question, why did things like this happen? And why do they still happen today? The answer is complex, steeped in history, and constantly in transformation. I do not believe one film could ever adequately address the racial problems in America. However, a filmmaker like Bigelow could at least try to, or perhaps address one single angle of such a looming issue. “Detroit” does not do either, and this failure acts to wrap the film in a neat little time capsule. Granted, the product is disturbing and effective. Nonetheless, “Detroit” does little more than deal a matter-of-fact kind of gut-punch that leaves you sore for explanation.