As a lover of history but also someone who was educated at the mercy of a British school curriculum, oddly my only real knowledge or experience of the 1967 Detroit riot came in the form of a fictionalised account of events in Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Middlesex. With that account story being given very much from a young, white, outside perspective, I knew that Kathryn Bigelow’s fiftieth anniversary look in to some of the terrifying events that took place would be a much more sobering experience, not one that you can say you necessarily want, but perhaps one that you absolutely need.
All things considered, it would be fair to say that Detroit tells a horrifying, all too readily relatable in 2017 story that, unfortunately, is stunted by a questionable script and some bad filmmaking choices. The film focuses on a fictionally filled in version of the Algiers Motel incident, a tragedy that occurred after the shooting of a harmless starter gun lead to brutality and murder at the hands of bloodthirsty police. Larry Reed (Algee Smith), Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), Greene (Anthony Mackie), Aubrey (Nathan Davis Jr.), Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) are among a multi racial group of revellers that become the victims of a sustained period of racist torment by a group of immoral police officers lead by Philip Krauss (Will Poulter). The dynamic of this ensemble is given another layer by the presence of Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard who find himself participating in the incident, neither an aggressor nor a victim, something of an awkward bystander with a moral compass who is the closest thing to an audience surrogate that the film has.
It’s important at this point to separate the overriding emotion that Detroit evokes from any technical problems that one feels the film might have. It’s a simple as this, if you are not left seething, shaking, shattered by the events that take place on screen, then there is something wrong with you. The blatant, unapologetic, unadulterated, racially motivated police brutality that occurs is sicking to watch. However, something that I couldn’t help but feel as the story unfolded was the filmmakers relying on the sheer shock value of the violence and injustice to evoke emotion, rather than engaging in important character development. I am certainly somebody who pays attention to a film, and I feel it’s telling that when reflecting afterwards, I couldn’t remember many of the names of the minority characters that had been subjected to these horrors over the course of two hours. The film begins and ends with passages and sequences that are incredibly sensitive and thematically poignant, but the large middle third portraying the Algiers Motel incident veers in to almost Funny Games-esque territory. From a personal stand point, I would gladly have halved this extended sequence and dedicated more time to the aftermath, something that feels extremely underserved in comparison.
Something that also cannot be ignored is the fact that large portions of the film’s dialogue are simply not up to the standard of the important story being told. Sometimes things are not said when they need to be, and other times overreaching lines are included to hammer home a point that would have been more effective without pointed words. Ultimately, Detroit is a film that will shock you and discomfort you to your very core, but something about the choices made in the writing and in the execution just doesn’t sit well with me.
For a film that focuses mainly on a single incident, Detroit’s cast is a large and talented one. There are too many great performances to single out in a short(ish) review, but certainly the likes of Will Poulter and Larry Reed elevate themselves above the rest to steal the show. As Algee Smith, Reed is a character who the audience follow before, during and after the Algiers Motel, one of the few that is actually awarded the kind of character development that is so lacking in others. As corrupt police officer Philip Krauss, Will Poulter is nothing short of terrifying. He plays a racist without any hint of remorse or redemption, he is pure evil almost to the extent of caricature, but what makes his performance so chilling is the simple fact that, as unfathomable as his motivations and actions are, they are tragically believable with both the hindsight of history and the unthinkable recent scenes in Charlottesville.
In what could have been a career defining moment for the actor, John Boyega is criminally misused as Melvin Dismukes. Undoubtedly one of the most accomplished performers on screen, Boyega is forced to watch proceedings in a similar fashion to the audience, mentally torn between his position of power and his identity as a black man amidst this utter mess. Boyega’s charisma and on screen presence was screaming out for a chance to shine, but for some reason, the confines of the true story I assume, the actor is left to wilt in the background for much of the narrative, never reaching his full potential.
Overall, I have to say that I feel a great deal of awkwardness about the fact that I did not have the reaction to Detroit that perhaps I was expected or supposed to. I am glad to now know the story of the Algiers Motel incident, but I can’t help but feel that the film as a whole is something of an opportunity wasted, especially given its release in the middle of a year that has seen the most Western racial and political discontent in a decade. Whether my qualms stem from the fact that Detroit is helmed by a white director and white screenwriter, I can’t fully say, but what I do know is that whilst I was deeply moved and emotionally wrecked by what was happening on screen, something about the execution just didn’t quite work.