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Movie Review: "Detroit" Is A Brilliant and Deeply Disturbing Film That Needs To Be Seen

Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jack Reynor, Jason Mitchell, Kaitlyn Dever,  Samira Wiley, 
John Krasinski and Anthony Mackie
Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

 Out of Four

When a white man directs a great film, or a hit film, they are just a director, representing themselves. But this year we've seen hype about Patty Jenkins getting the record for biggest opening weekend for a film directed by a woman, and F. Gary Gray get attention for the highest grossing opening weekend for a film from a black director. Why do we do this? Why must Patty Jenkins represent all female directors instead of just herself? Why must F. Gary Gray represent all black directors? Why must Kathryn Bigelow represent all of James Cameron's ex-wives?

Even though it's only early August, Detroit appears to be a shoe in for a Best Picture nomination (and a front runner to win.). Of course, if Bigelow wins, she'll be the second woman to have to Oscar for Best Director (and still the only woman.). Unless there is a backlash against her for being a white person directing a "black movie." The point we are getting at here is that Detroit is a great film from a great director, and it would be great be at a point where that is all that matters. But we're not there yet, and as it happens, "we're not there yet" is exactly the message of this film.

The police and National Guard on the streets of Detroit
(Photo Courtesy Annapurna Pictures)
The film chronicles specific events that took place during the 1967 Detroit riot (also known as the 12th Street Riot.).  Long standing tensions between the police and the black community reached a fever pitch  in the early morning hours of July 23rd, after a police raid of a "Blind Pig" (an unlicensed after hours bar) lead to confrontations between police and patrons and observers on the street and quickly escalated into one of the most destructive riots in the history of the United States, lasting five days.

Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan Army National Guard into Detroit,  and President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in both the 82nd and 101 Airborne Divisions. When the riot was over, 43 people were dead, 1,189 were injured, and over 7,200 arrest had been made.

The story primarily follows the points of view of three central characters (all real people or based on real people with the names changed): Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a Security Guard, who is guarding as tore across the street from the Algiers Motel; Cleveland Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a singer in an up and coming group known as the Dramatics, who end up at the Algiers Motel when a performance is cancelled due to the riot and he needs  a place to go, and Officr Phillip Krauss (will Poulter), a racist cop who responds what sounds like gunfire coming from the Algiers, along with two other officers, Dismukes and one National Guard Officer.

John Boyega as Mevlin Dsimukes in Detroit
(Photo Courtesy Annpurna Pictures)
The events that followed that night at the Algiers make for the bulk of the film, and it's truly terrifying to watch. The officers held the occupants occupants (seven black men and two white women) for "questioning", determined to get answers at any cost, using scare tactics to try to brake them, until things got horrifyingly out of hand.

Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) take a very straightforward approach, chronicling the events in a docudrama style that feels no need for Hollywood flourish or silly subplots. Bigelow employs the same Paul Greengrass influenced style she had adopted since she transitioned from action films to serious drama, and it adds greatly to the feeling of reality and never feels to hyper kinetic. Remember that a major influence on this style of filmmaking in Hollywood was the tv series Cops, and that fact makes this film all the more chilling (and it certainly adds a horrific new subtext to the "Whatcha Gonna Do When They Come For You?" theme song.).

This is not a anti police officer propaganda film as some are suggesting, though there is no question that the crisis we are facing currently is mirrored in the events of more than 50 years ago. Considering the story line, the film actually does the best job it can to give the force as a whole a fair shake. Nevertheless, it does portray white cops committing atrocities against black suspects (who are suspects in no small part because they are black), and if you don't believe that racism and police brutality are real issues, if you think
that the only problem going on is a lack of proper respect being shown to our boys in blue, then you're probably going to write off this movie, which is already poised to be the most controversial film of the year. (While being grilled in regards to an early incident where she shot a fleeing suspect in the back, Poulter's Officer Krauss defensively but honestly asks "They're running away. Where else are we supposed to shoot them?").

The opening of the film, which sets up the climate of tension in Detroit at the time and how it got to that level, seems to be inspired by Av DuVernay's eye opening documentary 13th, which provides the most comprehensive context for the tension between the black community and law enforcement in America (and the history behind it) ever put on film. Detroit is unable to provide as much understanding of context as that film purely because it's a narrative film. Where 13th is a must see from an educational standpoint, Detroit offers a visceral and emotional element that makes it an equally important film.

Will Poulter and Anthony Mackie.
(Photo Courtesy Annapurna Pictures)
This is an ensemble drama, but Star Wars star Boyega is perhaps the closest thing we have to a protagonist, and this gifted actor gives perfect, straightforward performance as a man caught between too sides of a conflict and doing his best to simply make sure that as many people get through it as possible. Algee Smith's portrayal of the aspiring music star whose world is forever shattered by PTSD in a time when the condition wasn't even being recognized for soldiers, is heartbreaking. Anthony MacKie brings a lot of quiet dignity and presence to his supporting role as Greene, a recently returned Vietnam vet satisying at the Algiers,and Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton, Kong: Skull Island) is a real scene stealer. But if there is a true standout among the cast, it has to be Will Poulter (the sympathetic Jim Bridger in The Revenant). The young actor got a fair amount of press for almost playing Pennywise in the new version of Stephen King's It, but here he gets a chance to play a far scarier and infinitely more complex character and does it with such nuance and conviction that comparison to Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List and especially Gene Hackman in Unforgiven are due, as is a Best Supporting Actor nomination. The boyishness of this former Narnia star nicely puts into perspective the disturbing thought that these young policemen are in many ways as much products of a destructive environment and shaped by the world created for them as the rioters, without ever letting any of them off the hook for their appalling actions.

Detroit is a great film, and an important one, quite possibly the most important we'll see this year. It's very rough and there are images in it that you will not easily be able to get out of your head, and it is absolutely not for younger viewers. It should not be viewed as propaganda, or a call to arms against the police, but rather as a sobering wake up call.  The timeliness of the story, and of the divisive views regarding whether this is even an issue (the President of the United States is "joking" about calling for more police brutality) makes one hope that this film can in same way spark meaningful discussion on a problem that isn't going away any time soon.

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