Review by Paul Preston
Would Annapurna Pictures have fared better if their newest release, Detroit, came out one week later than it did, coinciding with the Charlottesville, VA “Unite the Right” march? People may have had enough of volatile race relations and still dismissed it (it’s only made $15 Million so far), but I think its white-hot subject matter should make Detroit required viewing for everyone.
Centered on the 1967 Detroit riots that started with a club raid and grew over days to turn Motor City into an unstable war zone, the action eventually centers on The Algiers Hotel, where a group of white policemen torture and threaten a group of people in search of a sniper who fired on them. The group includes the lead singer of an up-and-coming Motown band, two white girls, a black war veteran and more. The hunt for the sniper leads to something called “The Death Game”, which is a horrible-to-describe power show put on by racist and out-of-control cops. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal do an exceptional job of putting viewers in the middle of this situation and piling on a heaping dose of uncomfortable.
The claustrophobic setting houses a number of good actors. Will Poulter further sheds the goofball he played in We’re the Millers and builds on the promise he showed in The Revenant as a right prick of a cop with a quick trigger finger and a God complex. His spindly frame is in direct contrast to how much weight he throws around, making him an even more frustrating authority figure for his victims to contend with. No one’s gotta be more frustrated by that then Anthony Mackie’s veteran soldier, who would probably love to go Falcon on them. Pouter’s cohorts are equally sweaty and smaller-than-Mackie. Standing out is Jack Reynor, so good in Sing Street, as a cop new to the game who tries to play along, to disastrous results.
Roped into this setting by circumstance is John Boyega’s noble security guard. Boyega shows flashes of Denzel here as a present yet squelched voice of reason amongst the chaos. Ever since his performance as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton, I look forward to whatever Jason Mitchell is doing, and he shows up here as an instigator at the Algiers, whose actions set off the night on a downward spiral. The most surprising actor is Algee Smith in a heartbreaker of a role as an up-and-coming Motown artist whose big break on the Fox Theatre stage is upended by the riots and he ends up at The Algiers where his life changes forever. Smith is most surprising because I have no idea who he is, and he’s come out of nowhere to deliver a powerful performance that’s arguably the biggest in the ensemble. His final scenes in a church towards the film’s finale are potent and sad.
Be leery of the last couple words that closed out the previous paragraph. There is very little that’s charming or cheery in Detroit. This movie gets to the heart of racism and police brutality in its storytelling and shows it in its most unpleasant stages. Bigelow has a penchant for authenticity in her storytelling, like Zero Dark Thirty and the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker. Detroit is no different with fly-on-the-wall photography that never devolves into distracting “shaky-cam” and the sets and locations leave no doubt that you are THERE, not just in 1967, but in a city torn apart by cruel abuse of power and furious revolt. The streets are scary in Detroit.
As I mentioned, box office hasn’t been generous to Detroit, awards season might’ve been kinder. This film certainly deserves a revival in conversations around that time. But as it turns out, this is an urgent time to see this film, following the asinine, divisive and downright combative statements by the President of the United States, vehemently defending white supremacists. Detroit is a feral reminder that racial bigotry will always rear its ugly head, but it has no place here, by showing viewers a road that shouldn’t be traveled down. Movies almost always have the balls to say what politicians won’t.
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Release Date: August 4, 2017
Run Time: 143 Minutes
Distributor: Annapurna Pictures