Movie review: Motor City madness is played out in the searing ‘Detroit’
The days are long gone when you would go to a Kathryn Bigelow film to be entertained. Early in her directing career, she would feature a nervous intensity in movies such as “Near Dark” and “Point Break,” but they would at the same time be fun to watch. She entered more controversial territory with “Strange Days” (still my favorite of her films), a science-fiction actioner that focused on bad cops and racial tensions in Los Angeles, but really made her name, and started getting Oscar nominations and awards with “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” a couple of riveting pieces of cinema.
In “Detroit,” she and her regular screenwriter Mark Boal revisit a shameful piece of pretty much forgotten American history: The racial unrest in black neighborhoods of Detroit in the summer of 1967, accompanied by racist behavior of certain mostly white local cops that culminated in a series of horrific events.
Boal and Bigelow waste no time in setting up the uneasy atmosphere of the city at the time. The police were known to be aggressive and, as told here, were determined to stop trouble before it started, even if there were no hints of any. Multiple arrests at a peaceful, private after-hours party, where all the guests were black, lead to rioting and looting in the black sections of the city, standoffs between cops and citizens and, over a period of a couple of days, a major escalation of violence. Local police couldn’t handle it, so the National Guard was called in.
All of this really happened, as did a narrative that took place in the middle of it. At a Detroit nightclub Martha & the Vandellas are seen onstage singing their hit “Nowhere to Run.” Backstage, an up-and-coming group called The Dramatics, specializing in close-harmony R&B and doo-wop, and featuring a fantastic singer, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), are ready to go on and hopefully be discovered. But the city’s turmoil forces the club to be emptied. For safety’s sake, Larry and some of his bandmates check in to the nearby Algiers Motel to ride out the storm.
Wrong time, wrong place. Another guest there, a young black man who’s more of a prankster than a troublemaker, commits a stupid act. He fires a fake, but real-sounding gun toward some National Guardsmen. The word “sniper” is yelled out. Local cops raid the Algiers, determined to find the gun and arrest the shooter.
As bad luck would have it, a racist cop with a bad temper named Krauss (Will Poulter) who, earlier in the film, shot a looter in the back as he was running away, is the first to arrive, and commences to take charge. He and his equally racist partner, Flynn (Ben O’Toole), are already angry and on edge, when they then see a couple of young white women staying at the motel, and are incensed that they might be commingling with black men. A combination of anger, frustration, and helplessness is very clear on the face and in the body language of Greene (Anthony Mackie), an ex-Marine who’s also staying there. Things go wrong, things get worse. “Interrogation tactics” turn to murder. Events spiral out of control so far and so fast, “Detroit” becomes a full-fledged psychological horror film, with innocent people (everyone in the motel) trapped by monsters (the cops).
Some hope is seen in the character of a black security guard named Dismukes (John Boyega) who attempts to get everyone to stay cool and calm, but once the film’s violence bares its teeth, there’s no turning back. To make viewers even more uncomfortable, Bigelow uses a lot of hand-held camerawork, and has those cameras in constant motion.
Though most of the film takes place in the motel, it later looks in on the aftermath of what happened there, and gets back to the story of The Dramatics (the group would eventually score a hit with “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get”). Again, this is not exactly an entertaining film. It’s gripping, intense, and thought-provoking. Even though it ends on a glorious note of gorgeous gospel music, you’re not going to leave whistling a happy tune.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Mark Boal; directed by Kathryn Bigelow
With John Boyega, Algee Smith, Will Poulter, Ben O’Toole, Anthony Mackie