Detroit is a docudrama about the Algiers Motel incident during the 1967 Detroit riot in which a group of white cops bullied and tortured several black men and two white women, murdering at least two of them. It was written by Mark Boal, a white man, produced by Megan Ellison a white woman, and directed by Kathryn Bigelow a white woman. There has been much controversy over a group of rich white people making a film about the black experience against police brutality. As a middle-aged, middle-class white man myself, I’ll let that (perfectly legitimate) debate carry on elsewhere.
What I will say is that Detroit is an impeccably directed, wonderfully acted, intense piece of filmmaking. It begins with some overlaid text setting up that Detroit in 1967 had an influx of black citizens yet the police force remained almost entirely white. Racism was high; racial tension was higher. After the police raid an unlicensed club, arresting dozens of black men and women, riots break out. Stores are looted and burned, violence erupts on both sides.
We then meet the first of our cast of characters, The Dramatics, an R&B group that have come to Detroit in hopes of scoring a record deal. Just as they are about to go on stage at a music hall, the police shut down the venue. The lead singer, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) rush to the Algiers Motel where they meet two white girls, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). They hook up with some other black men in their motel room. One of those men, Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis, Jr.), is openly hostile to the new guys and pretends to shoot another man for dramatic effect. In reality, he fires a starter pistol, which is loud but contains no bullets. He then shoots the gun out the window in order to scare the National Guard across the way.
The National Guard alongside the state police and Detroit cops fear this is sniper fire and they rush to the Algiers to investigate. Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard, rushes in as well. At first, he wants to get the sniper but as things escalate, he acts as a buffer between the potential shooters and the white cops. Racist police officer Phillip Krauss (Will Poulter), whom we’ve already seen shoot an unarmed black man in the back, begins lining everyone in the hotel against the wall, demanding confessions as to who was doing the shooting. Things escalate from there very quickly to violence, torture, fake executions, and murder.
Bigelow turns the screws on the tension to an unbearable amount. She loves pushing her cameras into the violence and lingering. She’s gotten quite good at her semi-documentary style, making you feel like what is happening is really real. She says she was inspired to tell this story after the Ferguson riots in 2014 and she draws a clear line between what happened in Detroit those many years ago and the headlines we seem to see every other month about police violence against unarmed black men.
I wish she’d spent a little more time putting the events of the film into greater context. We briefly see the how the riots started but the film doesn’t bother with the ins and outs of why the city was a racial pot ready to boil over or why the rioters would do things like keep the fire department from putting out burning buildings. The main characters are all thinly drawn as well. They are rough sketches that seem to exist to further Bigelow’s themes of racism and violence (which are well made) but we never get a real feel of whom these people are and therefore why the violence against them matters.
These are smallish complaints on an otherwise really effective movie. As the headlines continue to prove, our nation has never properly dealt with issues of race and inequality. Detroit is a well-made, intense reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
The video presentation on the Blu-ray looks quite good. In fitting with their documentary style, the film used several types of lenses and numerous bits of archival footage, which naturally fluctuates the quality of the images, but I didn’t notice any scratches or other type damage. Audio is quite impressive, delivering a lot of surround activity with the shooting, crowd noises, and explosions. Extras include several short video clips interviewing the cast and their real-life counterparts, plus a photo gallery and the trailer.
Detroit is powerful film exploring a very specific moment in our not too distant pass. It does a great job making the audience feel the absolute horror of this racially motivated instance but falters when putting that moment into a greater context. Still well worth watching and pondering.