DETROIT Review: 8 out of 10 (The Real Summer War Movie)
DETROIT is the latest film directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Based on the Algiers Motel incident during Detroit's 1967 12th Street Riot, the film was released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event. The film stars John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinski and Anthony Mackie. Though it is a period piece about a harrowing incident during the wave of the civil rights movement in this country, the film is also a grim reminder of what has changed in this country in 50 years...and how much still needs to be done.
Bigelow tackles a difficult scenario in DETROIT. During a multi-day riot, local police and national guard lay siege to the Algiers Motel to find a "would-be" sniper they suspect is there. They round up the motel inhabitants, including two young white women living in the motel along with seven other black men. Will Poulter plays Krauss--a racist cop who leads the charge as they hold the suspects hostage--beating and torturing them in an attempt to get a confession. John Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a local black man who is a security guard for a nearby store. When the commotion begins, he follows the police and the guard to the motel. He is then pulled in as a reluctant participant, trying his best to calm the situation down but alternately helpless to act because of the power structure of color. With the young girls there, a fear of miscegenation amps up the tension further with the cops and very quickly the situation begins to break down to lawlessness, assault, and murder. It is a tough watch as the scenario offers so much to interpret--from those who are inherently racist and evil to those who are decent who stand by and do nothing, while others break under the weight of the tension. DETROIT is a bold stare down of toxic racism and the power of white agency.
Bigelow and journalist/ screenwriter Mark Boal worked diligently to piece together what happened in the Algiers Motel that night, as well as the greater scenario of the Detroit riot. Using testimonies, interviews, and eye witness accounts, they worked to reconstruct without offering much that is otherwise speculative. Shot with lots of handheld cameras and nearly all in mid-shots to close-ups, the audience stands by and watches, helpless as others are on screen. If DUNKIRK was a historic picture that had wide open vistas but felt distantly aloof with unnamed characters, DETROIT brings the action into a close and uncomfortable level with characters who are genuine and relatable.
The film isn't perfect, however. The narrative moves beyond that night at the Algiers, offering all of the ripple effects--from the trial to the lives that were forever altered by it. Some of this seems to go on a bit too long, including a long stint showing the life of one would-be Motown singer who survived that night but can no longer work as an entertainer and performer due to so much pain and loss. It is an understandable sequence that shares consequence, but there were other characters, including Boyega's Dismukes that begged for greater explanation and follow up.
DETROIT is the historical period piece this country needs right now. Instead of cheering the resolve of WWII boat captains and fighter pilots from a war long since won, DETROIT gives a close up look at a war waged right here in America. One still being fought every day in our streets.