2017, R, 143 min. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, Anthony Mackie, Nathan Davis Jr., Peyton "Alex" Smith, Malcolm David Kelley, Joseph David-Jones, John Krasinski, Jeremy Strong, Laz Alonso.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 4, 2017
Rarely has a movie been more urgently needed than Detroit, yet after delivering on its promise for nearly the entire first half, Detroit goes down in flames before it’s over. The film loses its way and its macrocosmic vision when it narrows its focus to tell a specific, factually based story about the hideous events that occurred at the Algiers Motel during the height of the Detroit riots in July 1967 – 50 years ago this summer. Detroit begins with an astute portrait of the social factors and individual tensions that ignite to blow the lid off the powder keg of a city’s bundled frustrations. Disappointingly, Detroit then shifts gears to focus on a couple of loose cannons and, as a result, diminishes the intensity of the overall explosion.
The filmmakers (Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow; Mark Boal, Bigelow’s screenwriting collaborator on Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker; and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, a camera whisperer who specializes in conveying taut tensions) bring their admirable skills to bear on Detroit during its opening sequences. The film casts a wide net, showing many of the incidents and daily irritations that continually gnaw at the emotional guts of Detroit’s citizens, both black and white. A broad array of characters are introduced; some remain central to the story while others fall to the side. Melvin Dismukes (Boyega), the film’s nominally central character, is a private security guard who’s called in to protect a grocery store as the riots start. The Dramatics, a local singing group, are about to get their big break when, due to the riot threat, their spot is canceled and the theatre evacuated just as they are about to take the stage. Disappointed, the lead singer Larry Reed (Smith) and his best friend Fred (Latimore) head home, but when their bus gets toppled in the street melee, they try to continue on foot until they decide to camp out for the night at the nearby Algiers Motel. Philip Krauss (Poulter, the kid in The Revenant) is a racist white cop who, despite shooting a young looter in the back early in the film, is nevertheless allowed to go back out on patrol, and is in command of the unit that is the first to respond to the call of shots fired at the motel. (Krauss is a fictional character, not the actual cop who answered the call, but was eventually acquitted of the actions shown in the film.)
It’s these opening scenes that pack the most punch and will leave moviegoers wondering what, if anything, has changed in the intervening 50 years. Black lives matter no more now than they did in 1967, Detroit seems to say. But the film takes a nosedive when the action goes from the city streets to the interior of the Algiers Motel. Krauss and his white-cracker posse of city cops storm the building, and proceed to torture the dozen people (10 black men and two young white women) for an unbearable length of time. The victims are lined up with their hands against the wall, while cops escort them into different rooms to commit a variety of physical and psychological abuses. The action becomes repetitive, the characters interchangeable, and the movie almost grinds to a halt as a result. It feels as though one is unwillingly trapped inside a torture-porn movie in which the evildoer cannot be vanquished. Moreover, the film at this point becomes more the story of the horrific white cops instead of a story about the victims and the factors that put such dynamics into play. As if to remedy this misdirection, the film includes an extended epilogue that brings the focus back around to the subsequent effects of the event on a couple of the characters. Yet the unsatisfactory outcome of the trial and the pivot to character emphasis at the end only complicates Detroit’s pace and narrative problems. Like the stuttered momentum of race relations throughout American history, Detroit bounds with both hopeful energy and destructive steps backward.
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Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow, John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, Anthony Mackie, Nathan Davis Jr., Peyton "Alex" Smith, Malcolm David Kelley, Joseph David-Jones, John Krasinski, Jeremy Strong, Laz Alonso