Film Review: Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’

Detroit John Boyega
Screenshot

Director Kathryn Bigelow, in her first film since 'Zero Dark Thirty,' dramatizes an incident of police terrorism at the heart of the 1967 Detroit riot, creating a drama as powerful as it is timely.

At their best, liberal film dramas that tackle the monumental issue of race in America have offered humanity and insight. It’s safe to say, though, that when Hollywood gives us a portrait of racial tragedy and injustice, it’s probably a tale of hope and uplift as well, a parable of moral darkness leading nobly into the light. But when you watch “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s sweeping, scalding drama about the Detroit riots that took place 50 years ago, in July 1967, you’re entering a zone where the usual feel-good pieties don’t apply. For this is no comforting drama of social protest. It’s closer to a hair-trigger historical nightmare, one you can’t tear yourself away from. Bigelow, working from a script by her regular collaborator Mark Boal (it’s their first film since “Zero Dark Thirty”), has created a turbulent, live-wire panorama of race in America that feels like it’s all unfolding in the moment, and that’s its power. We’re not watching tidy, well-meaning lessons — we’re watching people driven, by an impossible situation, to act out who they really are.

As the film opens, Bigelow re-stages the event that touched off what became known as the 12th Street Riot: a police raid on an unlicensed bar operating out of the second floor of a printing company. The cops have the right to shut this “blind pig” down, but the problem is their overzealous anger. They treat the black patrons like chattel, threatening them with violence, then herd them out the front door and line them up as if they were criminals. An incensed crowd gathers across the street (a man shouts “What did they do?,” a line that echoes across the decades), and before long their outrage erupts as if it couldn’t be bottled up anymore.

Someone smashes a store window. A Molotov cocktail gets hurled at a gas station. More windows are smashed, and merchandise stolen. The homemade bombs multiply, setting whole blocks ablaze. Rocks get hurled at firefighters. Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso), standing on a car with a megaphone, tries to calm the crowds by saying “Change doesn’t happen overnight! Change is coming!” You can feel an entire city clenching up to say, “Yeah, when?”

Bigelow works in jagged brief scenes, mixing in an occasional shot of period newsreel footage that testifies to the startling job the film’s production designer, Jeremy Hindle, and cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, have done in re-creating the crumbling squalor of Detroit in the white-flight era. Bigelow sketches in the emotional and logistical dynamics of a late-’60s urban riot: the violence that erupts out of the city’s residents without warning and, seemingly, without “rational” justification, because there’s no agenda behind it — it’s protest in the form of a spasm. The fact that we’re seeing African-Americans trash their own neighborhoods expresses something that’s profoundly implosive yet necessary: an incendiary had-it-up-to-here hopelessness tinged with a weary nothing-more-to-lose masochism.

Yet “Detroit” is not, fundamentally, a movie about how the chaos of 1967 played out in the streets of Detroit. That’s merely the backdrop. By day three of the riot, the National Guard has moved in, patrolling the boulevards in tanks, and large sections of the inner city have been closed off. Life goes on, but life is also at a standstill. It’s up to the police to “keep the peace,” which means enforcing a hard line on anyone who looks suspicious — which, to them, is more or less any black male they see. Every encounter is a tinderbox. And that’s the unruly, things-coming-apart background for the event that forms the cataclysmic dramatic center of “Detroit.”

The film’s shifting multi-character drama glides over to the last setting we’d expect: a downtown theater that’s hosting a pop-soul revue, with Martha and the Vandellas onstage singing “Nowhere to Run.” An up-and-coming, unsigned group — the Dramatics — is waiting in the wings for its big moment when the concert suddenly gets canceled. This crushes the heart of the group’s lead singer, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), and we can see why; he’s a born star, with the voice and face of a soul angel. He and the band’s manager wind up on the streets, rambling toward safety, finally landing at the Algiers Motel, where a group of brothers are hanging out, flirting and partying, along with two young white women from Ohio.

Larry and his buddy pay for a room in the hotel’s annex, just to find refuge. Everything seems to settle down until 17-year-old Carl (Jason Mitchell), demonstrating to his new acquaintances what a police encounter is really like for a young black man, shoots off a blank from a starter gun. He then gets the incredibly stupid idea of firing the gun out the window at the National Guard troops patrolling the area about 100 yards away. This brings a trio of junior cops to the premises, led by the tall, beetle-browed, trigger-happy Krauss, played by the 24-year-old British actor Will Poulter, with a kind of scary implacable blankness, as a petty thug of racist one-upmanship.

What follows is an extraordinary sequence of agonizing, protracted police terrorism. Krauss lines everyone up against the wall, demanding to know who the shooter was, and where the gun is. But hardly anyone saw Carl fire his toy pistol, and everyone, understandably, clams up. Krauss, who we’ve already seen shoot a looter in the back, thinks he’s enforcing “the rule of law,” but what’s really happening is that the riot has dissolved the rule of law.

What Krauss now seizes on isn’t law and order, but the desire to impose his will, to make black people knuckle under. He and his comrades react with horror to the sight of two white women in what seems to be a biracial sexual situation. As this bully cop descends into violence (threats, beatings, then worse), we can see he thinks it’s all a means to an end, but the brutality is actually the point. It’s a primal racial power play: ugly, terrifying and impossible to fight back against. Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), the tough, wily security guard who has found his way to the hotel, is no coward, but he’s smart enough to stay silent. The only way to survive is to submit. And even then…

By the time Krauss and his gang are finished, three innocents are lying dead in pools of blood. Yet the galvanizing complexity of “Detroit” isn’t that we’re watching a hiss-worthy “bad cop” commit unspeakable acts. It’s that his extreme rationalization for those acts makes him the tip of the iceberg, the end of the spear — the spear being a vast socially and psychologically encoded network of prejudicial thought and emotion about African-Americans that has never gone away. The parallels between what happens in “Detroit” and the cases of police brutality and homicide in the Black Lives Matter era are overwhelming, yet the film’s haunting message, and the reason it can’t be written off as a police-bashing movie, is that it’s about something bigger than the police. It’s about the way we all have lived with the normalization of racial violence in America.

Even when this brilliantly excruciating sequence is over, the nightmare doesn’t end. The movie turns Kafkaesque when Melvin, who didn’t even piss off the police, is called in as a suspect; he carries a .38 pistol for his job, so he’ll do. The film then leaps ahead to the trial of the three cops, an event that Bigelow and Boal stage less as a courtroom drama than as a prismatic snapshot of how, in our legal system, the racial deck gets stacked. Yet it’s all part of a larger story, and “Detroit,” by digging into the toxic heart of what that story is about, should provide for moviegoers, both black and white, a dramatic experience that is nothing short of a catharsis. Let the searing — and, God willing, the healing — begin.

Film Review: Kathryn Bigelow's 'Detroit'

Reviewed at Dolby 88, New York, July 21, 2017. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 143 MIN.

Production

An Annapurna Pictures release of a Annapurna, First Light Productions, Harpers Ferry, Page 1 prod. Producers: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Matthew Budman, Megan Ellison, Colin Wilson. Executive producers: Hugo Lindgren, Greg Shapiro.

Crew

Director: Kathryn Bigelow. Screenplay: Mark Boal. Camera (color, widescreen): Barry Ackroyd. Editor: William Goldenberg.

With

John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Muray, Jack Reynor, Kaitlyn Devor, Ben O’Toole, Nathan Davis Jr., Peyton Alex Smith, Malcolm David Kelley, Joseph David-Jones, Laz Alonso, Ephraim Sykes, Leon Thomas III.

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  1. i s says:

    I was watching Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit in the cinema. Suddenly I was so dizzy that I had to leave the cinema to vomit. Very badly filmed. So dizzy. D-I-Z-Z-Y!!!!!!!

    The film has a score of 7.5 / 10 on rotten tomatoes, so, or I’m an idiot or rotten tomatoes and some film critics are the most dishonest people in the world. Who said that? Sure, I’m an idiot, but I know a director that is more idiot than me…

    By the way, nobody at the cinama was watching the screen.

    Detroit: 2/10
    It will win a Razzie for the worst directing.And editing

    Rotten tomatoes: 0.000000001 / 10

    Filmaffinity: 0/10

    Hobby consolas: 0/10

    Really badly filmed. Badly editing, and badly directed.
    By the way, my girlfriend said that this movie, Detroit is a racist movie. What do you thing?

  2. Race-baiting a popular sport notwithstanding, you don’t get to erase history by obliviously ignoring it. Calling attention to a fact is not necessarily entertainment or good cinema. It simply raises awareness.

  3. Dan says:

    What happened in Detroit at these riots is nothing compared to what happened at the TULSA RACE RIOT in 1921….that’s one of the most shameful chapters in American history.

    More than 300 people died, mostly black people, who were killed and lynched by white police men. They burned down a whole quarter of the city by throwing fire bombs from planes on the roofs.

    It was the richest black community in America & the white racists wanted to destroy their competition.

    It’s amazing how long this event has been taboo.
    Someone should make a feature film about Tulsa.

    If “Detroit” is a success, do “Tulsa” next.
    People need to know what happened.

    • Sandy Moore says:

      I agree. The Tulsa Race Riot is a much more important story. It’s actually so shocking, that Hollywood is probably too afraid of this subject. They prefer to help erase it from American history? Why are Steve McQueen, Ava DuVernay and the guy who made “Moonlight” not making a feature about it? There are only a few documentaries, but nothing big. Most people still don’t know the Tulsa story.

  4. BringBackDailyVariety says:

    There are still some cops today who are prejudiced toward anyone who is Black, so, “Detroit” will expose the legacy that exists today in the 21st century.

  5. Gahan says:

    I’m no Historian, but I bet Detroit in 1967 was suffering from the same kind of Black on Black violence that modern Chicago sees today. From the review, it seems as if this important angle is not covered at all. #AllLIvesMatter

    • mla28ny says:

      Shut up. Nobody is listening to your racist drivel. “Black people kill each other so it’s ok if cops shoot a few thousand innocent black people because, hey, all black people are guilty.”

  6. Chris says:

    I hate shaky cam, overdone, over hyped, and truly often unnecessary – it’s a distraction, as if the quality of the story is not up to par.

    And/or the director is not confident in the audience, or is not adapt in choreographing the performances, and allowing the action of breathe organically and by doing so – telling the story well by adding that dimensional to it – she had the same problem with her female lead in ZDT.

    Sorry to say Boyega, after a outing in star-wars and the circle, is just not an seasoned actor enough to convince people – him just ‘saying the lines’ – doesn’t cut it. If you don’t have a solid actor you’re again losing your audience (and a films longevity).

    I do believe an African American could have played the part better than an African British. But then again he would not have been so cheap. No doubt budget restrictions were in place.

    So in the end you have a film with lesser actors, with overtly shakey cam, and a story not told very well, and the director not tackling her own performance issues, but using techniques to mask them.

    In summary – a disposable film, that not many will see, and probably fewer will remember. Damn shame.

    • Angela Smith says:

      Finally, someone who has uttered the same sentiments as me. Yes, the potential was great here; however, the director, as well as the actors, didn’t put enough context to tell the story in a matter that would resonate with people. Yes, it’s a sad story, but it could have been much more than that.

      It also bothered me that most of this movie was not shot in Detroit.

  7. Ben Ohmart says:

    It would be nice if you mentioned the shaky camera in reviews. That way people like me, who can’t stand shaky cameras and are highly distracted by the frame moving all the time and did not get a chance to see the trailer, can avoid it.

  8. nbtx says:

    ” we all have lived with the normalization of racial violence in America”
    Not we, maybe you.
    What was the motivation for this movie? No thanks, I’ll skip this.

  9. sr says:

    The timing of this film is so wrong. we had 8 years of a president doing his part to divide our nation via racial lines. No, what the hell was bigelow thinking? This movie will do more harm to the already vulnerable state of our country. The black snowflakes feel threatened. Boo hoo hoo. Bigelow must truly believe she is a relevant female director. Frankly, she is average at best. The Hurt Locker was a crock of crap, one of the most boring, hollywood crafted POS.

    • @ sr

      “If i had a son he’d look like Trayvon ”

      obama knew that line would inspire violence and hatred but he said it anyway

      would obama’s son steal jewellery? smoke pot then make more drugs (Lean) at home? would obama’s son post pics on social media holding a gun?

      • LFlanagan says:

        @gerald Kennelly
        What an ignorant statement. How dare you suggest that Trayvon, who I’m sure you do not know was some sort of thug or criminal. And what violence has former Pres. Obama incited with his comment. If he had a son he would look like Trayvon…His son would be an African American Male.

    • SalULloyd says:

      Sr, so according to you, Obama “divided” the country??? Twitler on the other hand, is off the hook???
      You’re full of excrement.

      PS: In ZERO DARK THIRTY, Bigelow gave toruture a free pass, which fell in line with NEO CON policy. Aren’t you happy about that???

    • JP says:

      I, too, am concerned after this movie will open on August 4th in my city (Philadelphia, PA) and in other urban areas around the country. It may incite impressionable young people to do the same kind of violence, etc. I hope both Ms. Bigelow and Ms. Ellison, of Annupurna pictures, read this!

      • CCR says:

        They already know this, they are probably hoping it happens, then leech of the free publicity. It’s a sick world.

      • SalULloyd says:

        Your city throws batteries at baseball and football players. Are you concerened about that???

    • ralcarbo says:

      Troll

    • JK says:

      @sr you are nothing but an ignorant person, racist, and the very root of the problem with the country, spreading lies to fill your hateful agenda.

      Obama’s not a Muslim, not that’s a problem with it, but he’s not. If someone divided the country is person denying his nationality and religion

      Oh and Bigelow’s not only relevant but needed at this time

      Educate yourself and leave your hate behind please

  10. Golly, the Yankees keep telling we southerners are all racists and Nazis. Who’d a thunk the rest of the country is full of racists and Nazis? Just saying . . .

  11. Sounds like Kathryn & Mark did it again! Time to heal & time to evolve!

  12. nicole huggins says:

    awesome review Owen, I knew this movie was going to be good. Bigelow always knocks it out of the park!

    • SalULloyd says:

      Bigelow is an exploitation filmmaker. She gave Bush’s torture policies a free pass in “Zerio Dark Thirty.” And in the documentary “Cartel Land,” she gives us a sympathetic portrayal of an anti-immigrant militia man.

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