Released: 25 August 2017 (UK)
Length: 143 Minutes
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O'Toole, and Anthony Mackie
Coming to widespread acclaim in 2009 with The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow has moved towards the framing of real events with an often-critical lens while also leading the charge for women filmmakers in the industry. Her second venture into adaptation, Detroit, continues her unflinching, politically charged examinations with outstanding results.
Taking place in Detroit’s 12th Street Riot in 1967; the film focuses mainly on the Algiers Motel Incident which saw young black and white people brutalised and murdered by white law enforcement. Opening with an illustration to set the scene, we’re introduced to the highly internalised black culture, in which people banded together to cope with the tide of violence and the mostly white police force who rarely showed restraint in their crackdown efforts. From this springboard, a clear three-act structure takes place; the first establishes the characters and the social context they exist in, the second zeroes in on the brutality that took place at the hands of the authorities, and the final act shows the aftermath of tragedy. Each act can be defined as its own storytelling tool, examining how the riots happened, what was done to the black population at the time and why it matters even today. For example, one scene follows The Dramatics band as they’re about to enter on stage to perform, only to be denied their chance as the riots become more intense. In one moment, the film summarises the sentiment African-Americans had at the time, that feeling of having opportunities ripped away from them despite their passion. Much of the film is dramatized as there were few accounts of what took place at the motel that night, but the film laces each part of its narrative with visceral performances. Once the second act centres on the motel, it never turns away from the violence that takes place; it pins the action there and never relents.
The actors in Detroit do a superb job at portraying the two sides of the riots and their positions of power (or lack thereof). John Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a private security guard who aligns himself with the police and national guard; he does what he can to defuse the escalating situation but is often forced to stand by and watch. Boyega and the portrayals of other humbler servicemen work to deliver the more impactful moments of the narrative; in a barrage of hate and violence, the way some chose to act against it stick out the most. Caught in the middle of the chaos, the younger actors are often staggeringly emotive in the way they portray the victims. Algee Smith’s Larry Reed, the main singer of The Dynamics, captures a vivid and often heart-wrenching dehumanisation over the course of the film which really comes into its own in its film’s closing act. Treated no differently from the black victims, Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever also capture the trauma of being caught in a heart-stopping situation seamlessly. On the opposite end, we have Will Poulter and Jack Reynor as the police officers responsible for the sadistic interrogations; the loathsome way they dominate and antagonise African Americans caught up in the riots delivers a nerve-shredding tension that plants the audience firmly into their fear and desperation. From an intimidation standpoint, it reaches the same levels as R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket and J.K Simmons in Whiplash; anyone who sees Detroit will feel an immense disgust at their actions, which only grows as the incident rumbles on. There’s a look in their eyes (and sometimes in their superiors) that demonstrates the disdainful racism that ran rampant through the sixties.
The film’s rough subject matter is matched by its presentation; throughout the entire film the camera never sits still or lingers on one moment for too long, maintaining its feel as a pseudo-documentary with a few hints of real-world footage added in to anchor Detroit’s realistic setting. One technique comes in the first act; as the African-American populous grows more angry and bitter at police brutality, the camera moves more quickly, cutting around more wildly to emphasise the explosion of violence that took place. The music by James Newton Howard works to pull the audience into both the central predicament and the Motown genre of the time. As Detroit reaches its final act, this personality and flair drains and the music dampens to an unenergetic low, symbolising the sense of tragedy and injustice that pervaded the lives of thousands.
Powerful and strikingly relevant, Detroit is another resonating effort from Kathryn Bigelow, whose steadfast commitment to framing history creates a film where intensity runs high and perspectives stand in stark contrast. It offers an intimate and often disturbing glimpse at one of the darkest chapters in American history.
Rating: 5/5 Stars (Exceptional)
About the Creator
I'm a well-travelled blogger and writer from the UK who is looking to spread his blogs and freelance writings further afield. You can find more of my work at https://robc25.wixsite.com/thecainagecritique.