VOD film review: Detroit
James R | On 31, Jan 2018
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Will Poulter
In 1967, riots took over the streets of Detroit, leading to more than 40 deaths in the chaos and violence. Kathryn Bigelow’s film takes us into the heart of it, with a particular focus on that last word. Detroit zeroes in on one particular incident: the raid of the Algiers Motel, which involved several killings and several more beatings, all at the hands of the police.
Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who worked together on The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, are unmatched when it comes to historical accuracy and research, not to mention putting us firmly in the middle of a scene. They begin with an animation summarising the history of Detroit’s population, the broad movement of African Americans to the area as one of many shifting demographics in America’s social history. Then, we meet our key players: Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), a white cop who shoots a rioter from his vehicle like it’s a game, Greene (Anthony Mackie), a veteran of Vietnam who gets caught up in events, and Larry (Algee Smith), the lead singer of The Dramatics, who find their breakout Motown gig interrupted by the unrest. In the middle of it all is Melvin (John Boyega), a private security guard who is recruited to help stop shops being looted.
They all end up in the Algiers, where the firing of a starter pistol by Carl (Jason Mitchell), one of a group having a party, attracts police attention – and leads to a guns-first, questions-later raid of the building. It’s here that Bigelow spends the majority of the film’s lengthy runtime, and she breaks down the resulting terrorising of the building’s occupants with a sickening, gut-wrenching detail. Bigelow is a director skilled at tension, building heart-in-your-mouth suspense with a documentary-like realism. That, combined with the subject matter (and historical records), makes for a queasy, nasty watch. At times, that’s hugely effective, as editors William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon seamlessly stitch the handheld images with archive footage. At other times, it leads you wondering how far we need to go before the filmmakers think we’ve seen enough.
The cast are fantastic. Will Pouter is excellent as the horrifying monster Krauss, who embodies the institutionalised racism in the police force with an authenticity that’s unsettlingly topical and pertinent. John Boyega, too, is fantastic as Melvin, the everyman put in an awkward situation where he must choose between injustice and the jobs he’s trying to hold down, and his nervous, squirming charisma gives us our lens onto events. Making him the audience’s passive window, though, leaves him a little too transparent, and there’s a growing sense that, no matter how much Bigelow ramps up the atrocities on display, it’s lacking the emotional heft of watching humans go through such mistreatment. That responsibility, then, falls to Algee Smith’s heartfelt turn as Larry, from his spine-tingling moment singing, solo, in an empty room to his courtroom scenes later, where we see the ensuing, inevitable whitewash unfold. But to get to that, we have to go through a long trip through a hell that’s so intent on being intense that the cruelty threatens to eclipse the wider context, and what aims to be a study of abused power and police brutality ends up feeling a little too brutal itself. Perhaps that’s the point. Either way, Detroit will stick to you for a long time after the end credits have rolled, taking us back to a reality that hasn’t changed enough in the 50 years since.