One of the best parts of the film industry is that, as a medium, it offers an opportunity for insight into some of the world’s most dramatic and significant events ensuring that history, albeit dramatized history, is preserved for generations to appreciate and learn from. In the hands of accomplished director Katheryn Bigalow we now have this year’s most significant film in terms of social commentary, “Detroit”. Focusing on the infamous Algiers Motel Incident, the film is a timely look at the history of racial injustice and prejudice in the titular city and slowly builds into an uncompromising and multilayered portrayal of a very real event, even if it does take some liberties for the sake of storytelling.
“Detroit” takes place during the 12th Street Riot in 1967 and focuses on many different characters that experienced it eventually leading to the Algiers Motel Incident where three black men were killed while other black men and two white women were reportedly mistreated by white police officers serving the city as well as National Guardsmen, and even a black security guard after the law enforcement officers mistook a starting gun for a sniper rifle shot. Many dramatized versions of the victims and the accused appear in the film with John Boyega portraying real life security guard Melvin Dismukes and Will Poulter portraying white officer and the main offender in the incident Philip Krauss, a fictionalized version of real-life officer David Senak, along with others portraying racist and, in some cases, sympathetic law enforcement figures. Among the victims of the abuse are Jacob Latimore and Algee Smith as real life shooting victim Fred Temple and Larry Reed Respectively who were both members of the singing group The Dramatics at the time of the incident. Other victims are portrayed by Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Anthony Mackie, Nathan David, Jr., and Jason Mitchell just to name a few. The film explores the events leading up the incident, the incident itself, and the aftermath.
To say that “Detroit” is an uncomfortable experience is not enough. This is an unrelenting film if there ever was one, showcasing a brutal and dramatic assault of a group of innocents without outright vilifying the offenders while still managing to capture the context and powerful nature of the events the movie portrays. “Detroit” is an experience, not entertainment, and it’s one that comes with many different layers and a lot of subtext carefully managed to create a worthy film for anyone to view and appreciate. There’s a lot covered in this film and it’s all handled with expert pacing as the story unfolds from the very beginning of the 12thStreet Riots to the court cases that rocked a nation in the wake of the Algiers Incident.
There’s a lot to cover here, so I’ll start by saying that “Detroit” is a story that needed to be told and Katheryn Bigalow handles the project with great care and consideration for each aspect of the story and every characterization. On the surface this is a film about racial struggles in one of America’s most notoriously racist cities, but that’s just what it looks like on the outside. Beneath the surface this is a story of two groups, white officers and black victims, who find themselves separated by judgement and misunderstanding and how they approach and react to this misunderstanding makes up the true core of “Detroit”. There are villains in this film, many of them white, but not all of the whites are bad and not all of the victims are completely redeemable. Noone is overtly right or wrong in this movie, although obviously some in uniform are more wrong than others.
I found “Detroit” to be a fascinating and balanced look at the good and bad of the racism argument. Look at the irony of how the Algiers Incident began. A black man, who in the film at least was mocking the police officers he felt were oppressing his people with a toy gun, sparks fear in those same officers who rush into action believing there to be a sniper. The officers fear for their lives, seeing the black youths as monsters that are against them and instead these officers become the monsters to fear, but those monsters would have stayed away if they weren’t provoked. It’s a situation that can truly make you look and say all parties involved could have worked to avoid this. There is ignorance on both sides of the display that the film is not afraid to reveal, one side feeling they are righteous in hating those who hate and the other side who justify their hate without evidence to back it up. And that’s just the start of the issue.
As the film progresses each layer of the incident, from its aggressive beginning to its uncomfortable end, serves to build on the chaos established before it. The situation gets more and more out of control especially as the police begin to play mind games with the victims, pretending to kill some of them and eventually creating actual harm and death to those they soon discover are innocent. You see ounces of regret in the eyes of the officers, but it’s overpowered by not-so-subtle and very present prejudice towards the innocents who themselves are not perfect people, judging those different from them based on the hate-filled authorities in their society. It’s a fascinating character study really and one that I think deserves more attention than it’s getting, especially in a world where such racial divides and black-versus-blue offenses are very much becoming a regular issue in society once again.
Another great aspect of this film is the atmosphere. We see part of the film encompass the entire riot before shifting to the Algiers itself and when the violence becomes centralized at the annex we see a story with wider implications become a claustrophobic and dark story that truly creates an uncomfortable feeling if viewed with the right state of mind. There’s almost a subtle horror aspect to this movie as it forces the viewer to imagine what it would be like to be on either side of the situation. The rooms are small and the camera angles and lighting are perfectly designed to emphasis the space and hopelessness of the situation. Even though we know the story, or at least we should, “Detroit” provides edge of your seat suspense for the duration of its second act in an approach that perfectly capture the tone, fear, and terror that all came together over several hours on a single night in 1967.
To present such a multi-layered and powerful series of events you also need a great cast to back it up and everyone on board fills their specific roles in the conflict to perfection. You have the presumed, if not confirmed, racist cop, the centerpiece black character who serves as a main focal African American in the story, and we see sympathetic white characters who balance out the violence and brutality with compassion and a bit of needed humanity. Each actor seems to respect the severity of the situation they are portraying and they all fully embody their specific part in this violent and unfortunate misunderstanding turned human rights violation.
The biggest problem here though as while every performance is top notch, even the most notable of characters get lost in the shuffle. This film is clearly less about character development than it is about the story and the irony is we see more development of the villains than almost any of the victims even if we do get to know each victim in some way shape or form. John Boyega’s controversial Melvin Dismukes and Will Poulter’s Philip Krauss are by far the standout performances of this movie, and they’re both on the wrong side of a horrendous act. There’s a certain unfortunate irony there, and it serves as the one fatal flaw of this film if there is one at all. It’s hard to keep track of who is who and who is doing what and while the story being played out is massively effective, it creates a certain divide and difficulty for the viewer to become fully invested when the main characters, especially the victims, are hard to identify or appreciate as people themselves. Maybe that’s the point of the film as an underlying theme about these black men being treated as inhuman, or maybe it’s an ironic statement on the ignorance of the audience to recognize talented black actors, but regardless the film suffers only from a lack of identity in its main cast of victims.
Still that serves as one of the very few errors that “Detroit” suffers through. All in all it handles a very difficult subject with taste and respect to all involved, refusing to compromise on the negativity of that infamous night while also offering more human aspects to each participant and victim that truly makes this a tale about humanity and not a project that glorifies or demonizes one side or the other completely. It’s a very well balanced story and one that shows how even the touchiest of moments in history can become a top-notch cinematic experience in the right hands.
“Detroit” may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some may see it as heavy handed. Others may see it as slow, preachy, and even downright uncomfortable to watch. But watch it you should and for good reason. “Detroit” is a powerfully honest movie with a story to tell and amazing talent behind and in front of the camera to bring it to life. Its one major flaw is the imbalance of attention to detail and memorability the villains get over the victims, but even with that in mind this is a cinematic experience you have to see to truly understand. In a time where racial tensions between police and the black community are once again becoming a nationwide controversy, “Detroit” puts the spotlight on a story that needs to be told and does it justice, even if it takes some creative liberties to gets the point across. It’s not entertainment, and it’s not easy to watch, but it’s worth it and, for this reviewer, it’s a movie that deserves praise and a lot more attention than viewers are providing at the box office.