Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Will Poulter, Algee Smith, John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Jacob Latimore, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever
Plot: As a racial war erupts in a riot across Detroit, a group of innocent people in a nearby motel are falsely targeted by the desperate police.
To put it in simple terms, Detroit delivers. However, with Kathryn Bigelow, director of the amazing Zero Dark Thirty, at the helm, there was little surprise that her take on the horrific Detroit riots and the brutal murders of three innocent black men at the hands of racist police officers would hit home.
It opens broad. The tension between the blacks and whites are at a boiling point. Crammed into urban streets, angry at the lack of employment and the poor treatment white officials give them, the blacks are more than ready to break into a riot at any point. Even Anthony Mackie’s decorated war veteran, home from the Vietnam war, is unable to escape the bigoted prejudice of the police officers. When the riot commences, you can hardly blame the blacks for caving into the rage they feel at the injustice of Detroit. However, it is almost as though the racist white cops were waiting for an excuse to unleash war upon the black civilians. Bigelow directs the action almost like a found footage movie, The events of Detroit are shot as if the camera operator is using a grainy low-budget camera. However, there is no ‘cameraman’ character, illogically holding a camera as these horrific events unfold. What this give us is the best of the found footage technique, without any of the sour points that usually come with it. We feel like we are right there in the thick of the action. As rioters trash shop windows and cops chase after helpless civilians, the shaky-cam is going full force, so we get up close and personal with the characters involved in the riots. It also makes Detroit feel more real. These events actually happened and Bigelow never allows for any glossy camera trickery to put a polished sheen over the shots. The events at the Algiers motel shouldn’t be polished, after all. However, the film never feels trapped by this low budget, documentary feel. It still feels happy to jump from character to character, getting us several different viewpoints. There is even a rather elegant shot of Algee Smith’s underdog singer, sadly performing to an empty theatre (his big break gig is called off due to the riots), that wows early on. Even when keeping the movie broad, Bigelow still finds time to let some truly great performances bleed out, especially coming from the earnest black characters, caught in a war they don’t really want any part in.
However, it isn’t until the film hits the motel, that Detroit feels like Bigelow at her best. The film stops being broad and focuses on one building in particular. Sheltering from the violence, Algee Smith’s singer and his roadie hang up in a quiet motel, looking for a simple party, away from the horrors of the Detroit riots. However, when some rowdy black teens with a grudge to bear, decide to jokingly fire a toy gun, the motel quickly becomes the perfect scapegoat for Will Poulter’s aggressive cop. Sensing the chance to actually ‘do’ something, Poulter storms into the building, pulling the motel guests out of the room and lining them against the wall. The film spends most of its running time with this set-up, terrified innocent people at the mercy of these deranged cops. Will Poulter is at a career-best here, keeping his cop deep enough, so we realise there is more to him than a monster, but without hiding the fact that the man is, without a doubt, a monster. It is the calm rationalisation Poulter’s cop has for his vile actions. He feels that in not doing anything, he is the bad guy. He honestly believes he is doing the right thing as he tortures these poor people in the motel, looking for a shooter that doesn’t even exist. It is cinema at its most relentless, feeling less like a grim biopic and more like a horror movie with every passing second. If this was a fictional story, you would accuse Bigelow of taking it too far. The true story vibe definitely takes Detroit to places that most movies couldn’t go. For example, John Boyega’s character, in a fictional story, would be well placed to be the unexpected hero. A black security guard, who wanders into the motel to try and help the victims from his position of power, however small it may be, Boyega plays witness to this nightmarish scenario. You want him to turn around and fight back at any given moment. However, Boyega’s story is just as tragic as the victims, an antagonist by association, but you cannot help feel sorry for him, as the guilt sinks in. Meanwhile, Poulter would be ripe for a horrific Game of Thrones death in any other movie. Every other moment sees him become more and more worthy of a punch to the face. It is the way he looks at Hannah Murray’s white party girl, sickened at an assumption in his head that she could sleep with people of a different skin colour. The way he covers up the crimes of his associates. But that retribution never comes, at least not severely enough.
As horrible as the motel scenes are, it is almost a shame to leave them and return to the broad story-telling once again. It isn’t as though it is poor movie-making; it just feels like most other biopics. There is a courtroom portion of the film that wraps up what happens to each character. We get moments where the parents are given room to grief their dead children. Maybe the epilogue dwindles that little bit too much. It might have been better to swiftly summarise rather than spend extra minutes (the running time becomes painfully noticeable), slowly showing where everyone ended up. It is easy to see why Bigelow felt compelled to slow the ending down to show the sorry tale of one of the key survivors struggling through life and finding some sort of solace in a church choir. It adds a soft happy note to the tale, which is understandable given the dark material at play here, but occasionally a swift cut is more merciful.
Final Verdict: While it is hard to call Detroit a movie you enjoy, it definitely sticks in the mind, a truly gripping account of an embarrassing moment in history.