The evocative and unnerving “Detroit” tells the true story of a trio of young African American men who were murdered at the Algiers Motel during the chaos and civil unrest of the 1967 Detroit race riots. Seven other black men and two white women were harassed and beaten by prejudiced police officers in that motel and if you take away the retro setting, it’s a thought provoking look at racial tension that’s sadly still relevant 50 years later.
This movie will make you angry, but it’ll make you angry for all the right reasons.
Those critical of the subject matter in this film are going to be the loudest dissenters, throwing around words like “irresponsible” and “anti-cop.” They’re going to accuse the studio of encouraging riots or inciting violence against police. Step back for a second and think: what does that say about the state of race relations in our country? If the portrayal of the police force is what disturbs you about this film, then you are the problem. No matter if you think the filmmaking is good or bad, this movie should empower everyone who sees it to stand up whenever they spot injustice, police brutality, or gross violations of a person’s civil rights.
Director Kathryn Bigelow has crafted a film that’s large in size and scope (with a nearly two and a half hour runtime). She puts her trademark shaky cam to good use, but it never becomes too distracting because here it works in the most unsettling way, making the audience feel like they have been thrust right in the middle of these riots. The riot scenes are incredibly accurate and meticulously detailed, framed by design to make you uncomfortable. I’m still not convinced that Bigelow deserves the accolades she’s always earned as a director, but her straightforward style (paired with an equally sincere script from her long time collaborator Mark Boal) is a good fit for the material.
It isn’t only the cultural relevance that makes this movie a success. The performances, no doubt difficult roles for everyone involved, are effective and disturbing on multiple levels. To spew racial epitaphs as police officers (Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, and Ben O’Toole) would be just as emotionally trying for an actor as taking that abuse as a black man (Anthony Mackie, Jacob Latimore, John Boyega, and Algee Smith). It would’ve been easy for a handful to fall into the overacting trap, yet not one performance rings false.
The accuracy of this retelling of events is up in the air, as the film seems to go to great lengths to create a sort of cinematic CYA letter over the end credits. There are many things portrayed that don’t make any sense (why wouldn’t teens confess that someone in the building had a starter pistol and instead choose to subject themselves to police brutality?) But even if it turns out only half the historical truths are correctly dramatized, it’s still chilling. Bigelow inserts plenty of historical footage to lend a disturbing credibility, from actual video interviews and news broadcasts to archival photographs of newspaper headlines.
The movie’s bookends are a bit of a puzzler because they do the film no favors. It opens with a strangely out of place story told in an animated folk art style and ends with a heavily religious theme that feels contrived and tacked on.
Even if the film isn’t perfect, “Detroit” is a powerfully disturbing thing to experience, a story that many in the younger generation don’t know about. It’s a cautionary tale of racial injustice that sadly feels more relevant than ever in our current political climate. It’s a story that deserves to be told and remembered. It’s a tragic history lesson from the past that everyone should wish Americans didn’t need in 2017.