As evidenced by The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow is no stranger to tense movies. While Detroit is another rigid movie from the Oscar-winning director, this depiction of the racially-charged events that transpired in Motown 50 years ago is her most unsettling movie yet. First and foremost, you should know this movie is not an easy watch; while this movie is meant to start discussions, there is no happy ending here. If you see Detroit, you’re likely to leave the movie angry. Even though Bigelow does not hold back when it comes to telling this story, it is also jagged and in need of editing. If you were to cut 40 minutes from Detroit, you would have yourself a harrowing American classic; I would even say it would be a front-runner for Best Picture at next year’s Oscars. But that’s not the case here. Despite Detroit’s issues, it’s still a captivating movie with a gut-wrenching story worth your attention.
A police raid in Detroit in 1967 results in a days long riot. The story is centered on the Algiers Motel incident, which occurred in Detroit, Michigan on July 25, 1967, during the racially charged 12th Street Riot.
What hinders Detroit from being another noteworthy achievement from director Bigelow is how much time she spends showing us everything before and after the events at the Algiers Motel. Sure, backstory is needed in order to understand all sides of this historical nightmare, but outside of showing us the motel incident that resulted in the death of three black men, most everything else is either too much or unnecessary for a movie that winds up being almost two and a half hours long. I understand what Bigelow and Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal were trying to show, but a number of things in the first and third acts could have been left on the cutting room floor and the audience could be left to do its research after seeing the movie. (I imagine that most people who see Detroit are likely to Google the riots shortly after seeing this movie.) Perhaps Bigelow and Boal could have taken a page from Christopher Nolan’s playbook for a great example of a historical event made into a tight, to-the-point adaptation. Nolan’s recently released Dunkirk was exceptionally straightforward but also bare boned enough for the audience not to feel exhausted.
With all that said, however, thanks to Detroit’s second act, Bigelow shows us why she’s one of the most prominent filmmakers in Hollywood today by depicting the barbaric events that occurred at the Algiers Motel. A random shot from a toy gun at the overnight lodge kicks off the action and what happens next plays out like a never-ending pot of overflowing boiling water that keeps you on edge. If you thought Bigelow testing your nerves with defusing bombs in The Hurt Locker was the limit, then think again. To put it lightly, the entire second act may be uneasy for some viewers. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (Jason Bourne) does not shy away from every violent action that plays out in the motel, as the viewer is taken through the incident that seemingly continues to escalate with every passing minute. And when something does happen, you’re likely to wince at what you just saw. But that’s what Bigelow wants you to see. By not pulling any punches, Bigelow and Boal show that the harsh reality of racism was not a simple subject at the time in American history depicted in this movie; it is to be studied and learned from.
Detroit’s strong second act works mostly because of the actors portraying the characters involved in the incident. John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is good here, trading in his Stormtrooper outfit for a uniform as he plays a security guard for a grocery store across the street from Algiers. Algee Smith gives a breakthrough performance as Larry Reed, one of the singers from The Dramatics who gets tangled up in the incident. At times throughout the movie, Smith shows that he has a set of lungs that give a glimpse at a promising future. In smaller roles, Hannah Murray (Game of Thrones) and Kaitlyn Dever (Justified) play two girls visiting from out of town who, unfortunately, find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time; both actresses whom you likely recognize from two popular shows demonstrate that they have talent beyond the scope of what we see in weekly episodic television. But the performance that stands out the most in Detroit is easily Will Poulter’s (The Maze Runner), who plays the racially-motivated cop leading the incident at the motel. Never letting down his guard, before or after the incident, Poulter plays his character with a certain level of conviction that is undoubtedly imposing and so cunningly evil. If Detroit stands to receive any Oscar nominations, Poulter better receive one for Best Supporting Actor.
As I said before, Detroit has no happy ending, but it is essential viewing, made to be discussed amongst your peers. Despite its unevenness, this distressing story about the 50th anniversary of events during the 12th Street Riot in Detroit is a significant look at the historical context of injustice in our society. Does it have parallels with the times we live in now? I don’t necessarily think so, but that’s for you to decide. Luckily, movies are open to your own interpretation.