1967, one of the most dangerous and terrifying events in US history. The 12th street riot was example of how systematic racism and misinterpretation created chaos on the streets of Detroit. Since then, many have told this story in the form of documentaries and books, but now, it has moved to the big screen. Under the direction of Kathryn Bigelow, we have been given a glimpse of the sick past that Detroit has suffered and a reminder of what still needs to be done today; in short, this is a great film, but not for the reasons you might think…
Teaming up with journalist-writer Mark Boal once more, the events of the film follow from the moment the riots started to the day they stopped. The particular focus of this film however, is in the incident at the Algiers Motel, where racist police officers under the leadership of Phillip Krauss (Will Poulter), had killed 3 young black people; Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), Aubrey (Nathan Davis Jr.) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore). In the midst of all this, security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) who was guarding a grocery store across the street, somehow gets mixed up in the whole event and through beatings, racial abuse and the injustice of society, Detroit paints a picture, that people may not want to see, but it is something they have to see. This is a necessary story for people to know, but it is worth bearing in mind, that some of the events on screen were pieced together from partial evidence, so not everything you see is 100% accurate. Because of this, I’m not in any position to discuss the merits of accuracy and authenticity, but from what I have seen in conjunction with the true facts, this film is a tough thing to watch.
That is something that Kathryn Bigelow has managed to achieve particularly well with her films, especially The Hurt Locker (2009) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). She isn’t afraid to present history as it was; a gritty and hard edged. However, because of the themes of Detroit, especially when it comes to deal with police brutality, people may struggle to watch this film; I have to confess, I flinched a few times and was in complete shock at one or two moments. Mind you, that just shows how effective this film is at showing its message. Due to the number of different sources and accounts, the truth you see on screen is down to the person telling the story, so interpretation and discussion are key elements of the film, but I like that from a drama, especially one like this. And like with the previous dramas Kathryn Bigelow has directed, the performances in this are as powerful and harrowing as the content of the film.
John Boyega is the voice of reason in the film, trying to create piece between white and African-Americans without conflict. We all know him for his performance in Star Wars, but he takes his acting to a whole new level in Detroit; truly staggering performance. Then you have the supporting performances of people like Algee Smith, Kaitlyn Dever and Anthony Mackie, all of whom give use what the real people where feeling 50 years ago; complete fear and real confusion, they clearly immersed themselves in very worthy roles. But, weirdly, the performances that stands out above the rest is that of Will Poulter. He does not play a cop on screen; he plays a monster! He perfectly exposes the criminal racism at the heart of the event and provides the real drama and evil that, to this day, still exists…
Now because of the gritty nature of the story and the presentation of the city of Detroit, you’d expect this film to look and feel hard edged and unforgiving; it is. Molotov’s being thrown by civilians, savage gunfire from the national guard, blood spraying and splattering everywhere, buildings burning and glass shattering, the practical effects used in this film have been used to perfectly capture the decimation and defamation of Detroit. It isn’t pretty, but it is necessary; the savagery of what people could do, you feel it every step of the way.
More than that, Detroit also sounds as brutal as it looks. The constant shouting, shattering of glass, distant gunfire, the beating of civilians, fire erupting in buildings, it feels more like a warzone than the home of Motown we would want to see. I understand that from all of this, that the overall tone of the film, seems very negative to the situation, but frankly, that is the only way to look at it. The injustice of human nature and what police were doing to black people back then, it’s horrible; but within all of this, there are scenes of hope.
Simple acts of kindness are shown throughout the film and I would see that as a way to tell the audience that niceness is possible, we have to grow up and show it. And then there is the music of the film. Composer James Newton Howard doesn’t seem to contribute much to the film, but there is enough simple melodies and haunting tones in this film to create the feelings of tension and fear, and also, the soundtrack to Detroit herself; Motown. Motown music is all over the film; each upbeat track is there to remind that not all things are bad, kindness and compassion still exist, it is just few and far between. When The Dramatics (the R&B group in the film) come on stage, there is that brief moment, that feeling, that things could get better and just including little things like this into the music, makes the overall feeling of the film, just that bit friendlier to the audience.
In many ways, I find that Detroit is a spiritual twin to the film Get Out that we saw earlier this year; they are both small independent films, both deal with the same themes, both have great performances and both star a British Black male as the lead. The difference is, is that Get Out is a representation/reflection of racism in America today dressed in a Halloween mask of horror and comedy, Detroit is a timepiece to the past, offering us a chance to learn where this racism came from and how things have moved on. But you only have to look at what happened to Detroit to know how it went. The production design of this film, from burnt down buildings, to the brightly lit swimming pool of the Algiers to the stages of Motown theatres, it is a city of diversity and tragedy, all in one explosive package. Like with the effects used in this film, it isn’t pretty, but essential in bringing the riots to life on screen.
The only thing that could that job better, is the astounding cinematography of the film. Barry Ackroyd has returned with Kathryn Bigelow to apply what can be the only way to film this story; handheld, 16mm, 35mm, virtually no stationary shots, it puts the audience right on the edge of the scene. Because of this Detroit doesn’t feel like cinematic film, more like a Docudrama, this makes the whole experience even more realistic and believable for the audience and altogether, more of an impact upon people. This film doesn’t really easy into you with how it presents the facts; it more or less punches you in the face. This is also in part due to the spectacular editing of William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, expertly splicing in period footage, newspaper clippings and keeping the pace of the film at the exact right level, what we end up with is one of the most visual striking and impressive films of the year; serious Oscar contenders for cinematography and editing.
This is an incredibly well-made film; looks the part, thoroughly researched and asks the audience look at today and think, have things changed and if so, why not? If I had to look at this film in any way, it would be that change is still necessary for making society better, and that the fil does a very good job at exposing racism within the justice system of the USA. It isn’t a perfect film, I understand that some of what is shown on screen will not be met with the same openness as I have and the way it presents it, it isn’t soft or slow. Despite all of this, it is an epic film, if you don’t see it, you are either mad, or stupid.
I give this film an 8.5/10.