Detroit review: a flawed, necessary look at the past

Detroit, the latest film from Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow, is tough to watch. Its depiction of the 1967 Detroit riot, specifically the Algiers Motel incident, is unflinching in its brutality and unforgiving in its presentation. The story at its center is a tragedy, and the film aims to capture it with as little flair as possible. It’s a success on this front—and on many more.

Detroit poster
© Annapurna Pictures

Detroit starts with a beautifully animated history lesson to get audiences up to speed on the cultural and social climate of the city before diving right in to the action as the riot begins. The film then transitions to its three central characters and their stories, which become intertwined before long: Officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) shoots a looter for stealing groceries and running away from him moments after being told not to worry about the looters, singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and his group The Dramatics come within seconds of performing at a major showcase before rioting ends the show early, and security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) gets called in to guard a store from looting.

It doesn’t take long for the three stories to intersect, with Reed and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) the first to arrive at the Algiers Motel. They spend some time with Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) among others before Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) fires the (toy) shots at the National Guard that set the tragedy in motion. The bulk of the movie takes place over the next stretch, almost in real time, as Krauss kills Cooper before enlisting others in Detroit PD and the National Guard to do everything they can—including beating and killing, intentionally and otherwise—Larry, Fred, Greene (Anthony Mackie), and many other people at the Algiers Motel.

Will Poulter gives the performance of his still young career in these moments, diving headfirst into Krauss’ unbridled contempt for people of color and unchecked aggression given even a hint of power and authority. Krauss is a villain through and through, and Poulter brings a calm confidence to the role, even as Krauss and others are taking and tragically altering lives. It’s uncomfortable to watch to say the least, and that’s largely thanks to Poulter’s willingness to dive into Krauss.

On the other side of the equation, Algee Smith gives a heartbreaking turn as Larry Reed, The story takes him from hopeful artist to scarred survivor by way of some of the toughest hours ever faced by an individual, and Smith captures every emotion along the way to perfection. His story is one of heartbreak and devastation, and it’s his emotional through line that accentuates Detroit‘s tragedy.

Detroit doesn’t end with the night at its center, though. It follows the night’s fallout, through Krauss, Dismukes, and others going on trial defended by Attorney Auerbach (John Krasinski) and Larry struggling to pick up and continue his life, eventually leaving The Dramatics and getting a job as a church choir master. This final segment of the film can’t help but drag considering the lengthy night of tragedy and torture that preceded it, and it pushes the film toward overstaying its welcome. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Detroit punishes viewers with tension, tragedy, and turmoil before slowing the pace down as it pushes toward its unsatisfying conclusion—which, of course, is rooted in the unsatisfying nature of justice (or the lack thereof) rather than a problem with the movie itself.

Kathryn Bigelow presents the Algiers Motel incident and its surrounding moments with a devastating realness, largely thanks to Mark Boal’s script that, while obviously dramatized, feels as though it could have been lifted directly from history books. Detroit looks and feels like a product of the time it depicts, to the point that it’s almost visually indistinguishable from the historical footage Bigelow thoughtfully incorporates throughout. The Algiers Motel incident itself outshines the segments that precede and follow it in the film, though, with both the setup and payoff feeling inadequate compared to the dramatic and emotional masterpiece they’re built around.

Detroit is a success, though not entirely. It’s powerful and gut-wrenching. It’s tense and captivating. It’s also longer than it needs to be and many of its characters aren’t fully developed on screen. The big picture presented by Detroit pales in comparison to the lone incident at its center, and its pieces never quite come together. It’s a patchwork of half-finished sections tacked onto one that works, and that holds it back from the potential it could have achieved. Detroit is far from a perfect film, but it’s a must-watch film nonetheless—even if just for the visceral, poignant incident at its center. But even that could have benefitted from giving more attention to the characters involved rather than just the things they did and the things that were done to them.

7/10

Detroit, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, opens wide August 4, 2017, and stars John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie and many more.

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