Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay: Mark Boal
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie, Hannah Murray, Jack Reynor
Runtime: 143 Minutes
The Algiers Motel incident of 1967’s 12th Street Riot was never going to be an easy experience to tackle with Detroit, not just from an audience perspective but from the production side of trying to form a compelling drama out of a tragic moment of violence that mostly comes together due to a small number of statements and eyewitness reports from those involved. The dramatisation of such events would always take a toll on the accuracy of said events.
The film opens with a hand-drawn sequence of colour and messy storybook shapes with a subtitled explanation as to the background African Americans in centuries prior. It’s blunt and slightly patronising, but serves as a prelude to the real conflict as a seemingly minor raid on a speakeasy sees the spark lit that engulfs the entire city. Played like an extended documentary montage of footage and actions, we see the tensions of an entire culture that has had enough of peacefully waiting by for change to happen pushed beyond its breaking point.
Over its lengthy intro of revolt and chaos, we are introduced individually to the key players, on both sides of the bystanders and the Detroit police officers who will make their way to the Motel on that fateful night. It’s an expansive cast to handle, but Detroit is able to largely work around it thanks to both an intensely researched and remarkably well-balanced screenplay by Mark Boal, and director Kathryn Bigelow. Bigelow is by this point a brilliant technician when bringing hard-hitting subject matters to the screen, and her work here regarding the staging of the Algiers sequences offer an incredible, multilayered procedural that draws out over the films entire second act.
The near hour long confrontation between the riled innocents and the abusive figures of authority holding them there is as tense and horrifying as anything she’s ever produced – with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd throwing us into the hectic and invading space of the scene and the streets of the city outside. The moment the door closes on the venue for the first time, they are all trapped together in the staging area of a kangaroo court in progress. It’s an unremittingly intense standoff to angry up the blood, and any moment of apparent calm or safety is swiftly broken by a swift blow back to the messy reality of the situation.
The cast are all on incredible form. Boyega’s private security guard, Melvin Dismukes, caught in between by his duty and outcast to either side is quintessential Bigelow material even if his screen time is less than to be expected of such a name on the roster. The showstoppers come in the form of Algee Smith’s The Dramatics performer, Larry Reed, who steals the films traumatised beating heart as his journey sees his quest for fame thrown askew following the clash, and Will Poulter as Officer Philip Krauss who’s panicked humanity and boyish smile hides a deranged and frightening bigot who orchestrates the nights terror. While bit parts from Hannah Murray, Jack Reynor, Anthony Mackie and Jacob Latimore accommodate the admittedly slim material handed to them.
The shortcomings arrive in the form of these side characters, who don’t feel as fleshed out yet are saved by the power of their performances. They are figures in the complex and disconcerting game that is being played with their lives, but beyond the shock value of seeing such visceral acts of violence and psychological anguish being presented, we are given little insight into their states of mind beyond pure alarm.
Which follows into the films third act, which begins at the wind down of the Motel story and continues on to explore the trial that saw the three officers on site acquitted of their misdeeds in a hideous show of injustice. But as it drags out further from the blast that is the centre of the film, the pace flattens and the effect diminishes to the point in which the ultimate goal of the film is left kind of ambiguous and without intention. Had it been merely a depiction of the night’s events it may have got on easier, but the dawn out climax allows the audience to reflect on the film’s function at simply representing a continuing social injustice that is more prevalent and exposed in the media than ever before – which is to say nothing of the portentous marketing campaign that openly declares itself as something unseen by the eyes of white audiences.
When focused on the tension and unflinching brutality of the core narrative event, Detroit succeeds at stirring an angered emotional response from mainstream audiences with rightful intent. Bigelow and Boal continue to act as a powerful team in the realms of intelligent dramatic recreation following Zero Dark Thirty, but if only the remainder of the film could have stuck the landing with surer footing this could have been one of the summers very best. As it stands, it’s gasping intensity, performances and realism keep it a substantial watch.