The best part about DETROIT (2017), director Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful portrait of race riots in 1967 Detroit, is that it doesn’t play like a movie at all. It comes off as raw live footage, transporting its audience to 1967 Detroit as witnesses to the horror which occurred during that time. It’s based on a true event which happened at the Algiers Motel in Detroit.
In DETROIT, you won’t find traditional characterizations, main characters with background stories and depth, a plot with a neat and tidy story arc, or anything else that makes you think you are watching a movie. You will find horror and revulsion.
The centerpiece of the movie is a brutal and misguided police interrogation inside a hotel which leads to the deaths of three black men. This wince-inducing sequence takes up a sizable chunk of the movie. It’ll leave you squirming in your seat, wishing it would just end, but it doesn’t end. It goes on, and as such, it’s one of the more riveting sequences in a movie I’ve seen in a long while. Not only are the Detroit police tactics disturbing, but the fact that everyone else on the scene— the State Police, the National Guard soldiers— look the other way is equally sickening.
DETROIT opens at the outset of the 1967 race riots in Detroit, and then follows a group of characters whose fate becomes connected when they cross paths at the Algiers Motel. When someone shoots a toy gun in the vicinity of the National Guard soldiers on the street, it’s mistaken for sniper fire. The Detroit police descend upon the hotel with the soldiers, and the police interrogation begins.
Top-billed John Boyega plays a young black man named Dismukes who’s working multiple jobs to make ends meet. One of the jobs he holds is as a security officer in a building across the street from the Algiers Motel. Dismukes has a good head on his shoulders, and early on he brings coffee to the National Guard soldiers, alerting them that he’s across the street guarding the building, letting them know that if things go down, he’s on their side, which is exactly what happens when the “sniper fire” draws the authorities to the Algiers Motel.
Dismukes is on the scene as well. He views it as his duty to keep as many people alive as possible, and so he goes out of his way to play level-headed peacemaker, which in this case, since he also allows the police violence to continue, may not have been the best idea. Dismukes is accused later by his black brethren of being an “Uncle Tom.”
Since there aren’t any lead roles here, fans of John Boyega might be disappointed that he’s not in this one more, but it’s still a much meatier role than when we saw Boyega last, in THE CIRCLE (2017), which really wasted Boyega’s talent. He does a nice job here as Dismukes. I found Boyega’s performance reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington.
The other big name in the cast is Anthony Mackie, who plays a former soldier recently home from Vietnam named Greene who finds himself among the interrogated. It’s a good performance by Mackie, and the scene where he decides he won’t lay down for the police is a potent moment. It’s also jarring to watch this character, someone who fought in Vietnam and survived, beaten back home in the United States by officers of the Detroit police department.
One of the better performances in the movie belongs to Algee Smith as Larry, a young singer whose group’s performance was cancelled by the riots. The group becomes separated, and Larry and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) find themselves at the motel. Smith nails the emotions, from fear to disillusionment to eventually anger. Likewise, Jacob Latimore is very good as Fred, who like the rest of the black men forced against the wall during the interrogation, becomes more and more terrified as the night goes on.
But the most memorable performance in the film just might belong to Will Poulter as the racist Detroit police officer Krauss. You can’t take your eyes off this guy. He’s that despicable. This might be a break-out role for Poulter, who starred in THE MAZE RUNNER (2014) and was in THE REVENANT (2015), but I remember Poulter most for his role as Jennifer Aniston’s and Jason Sudekis’ son in the comedy WE’RE THE MILLERS (2013). Poulter’s work here is about as far removed from his comic work in WE’RE THE MILLERS as you can get.
Likewise, Ben O’Toole is nearly as chilling as Krauss’ partner Flynn. They’re the epitome of racist police officers.
And while DETROIT doesn’t paint a positive picture of the Detroit police, it does show that these two officers did not represent the entire department. During the movie, we see other white officers helping black people, and we see other white officers chastising Krauss’ motivations. The problem is, and this is where the film remains true to life, that while most did not share Krauss’ views towards blacks, no one felt strong enough to do anything about it. This film is every bit as much about those who turned a blind eye on the proceedings as those like Krauss who instigated them.
There are also two strong performances by Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever as two white women, Julie and Karen, staying at the motel. When they are found with the black men, they are accused by the police as being whores. They endure both verbal abuse and in Julie’s case physical abuse, as the police strip her top from her.
The screenplay by Mark Boal is first-rate, which is no surprise, since Boal also wrote the screenplays to the two other critically acclaimed movies directed by Kathryn Bigelow, THE HURT LOCKER (2008) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012). The dialogue is superb, the situations tense, and the characters while not fleshed out in the traditional way are all very real.
Director Kathryn Bigelow makes full use of her camera, from painful close-ups to terse hand-held camera work during chase scenes. She also captures the race riot streets of 1967 Detroit. I really felt as if I had been transported back to this volatile time.
I would imagine Bigelow will receive some backlash regarding this movie, as it’s a rather one-sided interpretation, and the police are not on the bright side of this one. But the reality is, racism still exists, and until it doesn’t, stories like this need to be told.
DETROIT is a superior movie, a powerful movie, and one that is even more disturbing because it takes place in a country that is known for its freedom and its rights, but as shown in this movie, those freedom and rights don’t extend to everybody.