I want to start this review by addressing and elephant in the room. I’m a white man. I was raised in Portland, Oregon, one of the whitest cities in America. In fact, I grew up in a small, predominately white, incredibly affluent suburb. Due to my upbringing, there is a certain distance placed between me and this film. I have never, and likely will never face any form of racial discrimination. Meaning, in a film about racial discrimination, I simply will not be able to relate to this story the way a person of color will. I hope this doesn’t come off off pretentious or insensitive, I’m simply trying to get the obvious out of the way.
This film is powerful. At the showing I went to, when the audio went quiet, you could hear a pin drop in the theater. When the movie ended: silence. Exiting the theater and walking back to my car: silence. My entire drive home: silence. Opening up my laptop to try and write this review: nothing. I was absolutely wrecked by the end of this film. Kathryn Bigelow does an absolutely incredible job at creating a realistic, suspenseful, thriller. One that is made more terrifying because it fits right into our reality. This isn’t a horror movie, but aspects of Detroit are more horrifying than anything else I’ve seen this year.
The story is broken up in three main parts: a prologue, showcasing how the riots began and the cities attempts to stop them, The events that took place at the Algiers motel, and the fallout of said events. We spend the most time in the Algiers, and I think it was a smart choice from Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal to tell the story of a massive event through the lens of a smaller, character driven microcosm. It makes this big, intangible thing, that of a city wide riot, personal and relatable.
Each section is incredibly effective in telling its story, and this can be largely credited to the cinematography and editing. The prologue, showing the origin of a city wide conflict, is shot with massive, wide angles. Theres a mix of ground level shots, as well as arial ones, making the city itself the main character. As the riots started erupting, the editing picked up pace to match. Cut after cut, escalating more and more rapidly, led to a constant ratcheting up in tension, making the viewer desperate for some kind of resolve. During the final chapter, the pace of the story calms down, and that is again represented visually. Shots are longer, and focused on things and characters that are stationary. The story is calmer, and the camerawork is too.
It’s upon arrival at the Algiers when these aspects go into overdrive. Everything in the motel is shot incredibly tight. It’s almost all handheld, meaning the camera is shaking and moving just like another person standing there. The cuts are many, and frenetically paced. There are different conflicts going on at the motel, and as they come to a head one after another, the editing kicks into high gear, shots getting shorter and shorter until the crescendo, then it just hangs there, silent and still, letting the viewer fully experience what happened. The editing and camera work are jarring, but they’re never disorienting to the point where you get lost. You’re constantly wondering what’s happening, but never left behind in the shuffle. Every second spent in the Algiers, I wanted to get the hell out. If Detroit isn’t up for statues in these categories I would be absolutely shocked.
The performances are also rock solid. Detroit is an ensemble piece, so there are central characters, but no real leads. John Boyega serves as the point of view character for most of the movie. He does well in his role, as both a black man and a man in uniform, he clearly demonstrates the conflict he feels, caught in the middle of the white police force and predominantly black victims. The former, looking to him as their get out of jail free card. The latter, looking to him for hope, begging that he will be their escape. Boyega shows that he can’t simply leave, and let the policemen have total control, but he’s also powerless to do anything to change the situation.
Will Poulter is terrifying in his role as a young police officer. He’s a racist megalomaniac, which poses a dangerous threat to everyone involve. Most people know Poulter from either We’re the Millers, where he played the “goofy eyebrows kid,” or The Maze Runner, where he played the “evil eyebrows kid.” But Detroit has completely removed him from either camp, and he’s proven that he’s a serious acting force. I hated Poulter’s character, and thats a testament to a job well done.
There’s a cast of incredible supporting players, Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore play two members of a Motown band caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Smith, takes on a more central role as the story progresses, and his journey is the one that most centrally highlights the effects of the riots on those involved. Jack Reynor and Ben O’Toole are brooding and intimidating as two other policemen, both enabling and following Poulter’s character down the hole they’re digging. They aren’t just relegated to the background though, Bigelow and Boal make sure to give each of them scenes that define their character, setting them apart from your standard racist lackeys.
All that said, without question, the most powerful performance of the entire film was from Gbenga Akinnagbe. He appears as the father of a murdered black youth in only a handful scenes towards the end of the film. But every moment he was on screen, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. With just a simple expression, I found my self choking back tears. Given so little to work with, it’s astounding the emotion that Akinnagbe was able to deliver. It may be to early to call this the best supporting performance of the year, but it certainly is thus far.
The only negative I have has to do with the structure of the story. As mentioned above, the story hast three distinct acts, each with a different focus. While all three are great, and effective at telling their respective story, they didn’t come together in a satisfying way. Each transition into a new act was sudden, and there wasn’t enough of a through line to keep me engaged. A movie about the scale of the Detroit riots would have been great. A standalone film about what happened at the Algiers in 1967 would have been great. A movie about how the riots affected the city, and the social aftermath would have been great. Detroit gives time to each of these concepts, but fails to justify their presence.
Kathryn Bigelow has done an amazing job at creating another true to life, pulse pounding film. This is the work of someone who has a total mastery over their craft, and this is another worthy addition to films the likes of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. I don’t know if I’ll ever watch Detroit again, it’s an incredibly difficult experience, and not one that I particularly enjoyed having. But the point of Detroit is to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. My desire, or lack thereof, so see this again is just another demonstration of how powerful and important this film really is.
Rating: 4.4 – Great