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Spoilers Ahead! Fifty years ago to the month, the city of Detroit, Michigan witnessed some of the most violent and destructive riots in U.S. history, the main cause of which is almost unanimously attributed to negative race relations between whites and African-Americans. This tense stand-off between Detroit residents, city and state police, and even the National Guard lasted five days, resulting in nearly 50 deaths and over 7,000 arrests. In today’s era of Charlottesville and Black Lives Matter, when it is perhaps needed most, this depiction of America’s institutionalised racism is not done justice in Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film.
From Detroit’s get-go, it’s rather clear that this is a film about the struggles of African-Americans and not just the riots themselves. We are given a brief history of everything from the slave trade up until the time of the film’s setting, all illustrated by a cartoon in the style of many civil rights era murals, before the action begins with the police raid of an all-black bar. Thus begins the first act of the film, chronicling the city’s descent into chaos as residents loot, burn and destroy everything in their wake. We are simultaneously introduced to three separate story lines; that of three Detroit police officers (Will Poulter, Ben O’Toole and Jack Reynor), a security guard (John Boyega), and the members of a Motown band, The Dramatics (Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore). These scenes, while serving as introductions to the crisis and characters, are at times pointless. The scenes following the protagonists (and antagonists) are jumpy and disjointed – not really allowing the audience to gage any sort of opinions or feelings about them. Instead they offer mild expositions and gratuitous musical numbers.
In the second act, the main action of the film takes place – the massacre at the Algiers Motel on the fourth day of rioting. Here, all the stories merge as police storm the motel looking for an apparent sniper, and hold the residents captive. To her credit, Bigelow captures the tension and horror of this incident incredibly well – as is her forte – leaving pulses racing as the three police officers beat and torture six young black men and two white women, all reluctantly overseen by Boyega’s “Uncle Tom-esque” security guard. The sense of dread grows and grows as one by one the youths are interrogated and/or killed in a depiction of police brutality as harrowing as the very real Rodney King video. By the end of this 45-minute sequence, all hope is drained. Then the audience is thrust into act three – the investigation into the bloodbath, the ensuing trial, and the aftermath. Unfortunately, the film again loses its mojo. The sequence seems rushed, leaving a lot unexplained and putting a sudden focus on Motown singer, Larry (Algee Smith) and his life after the atrocity – all leading to an anticlimactic ending complete with a strange “You Wouldn’t Steal A Car” style epilogue. A disappointing end to what could have been the Black Lives Matter film we needed.
Detroit’s main problem is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It plays with the documentary style, using real footage and photos from the riots. It also jumps from being a film about race relations to the Larry & the Dramatics story. Furthermore, the film’s running time of over two hours makes it very drawn out, detracting dramatically from its impact. This tragedy in three parts would probably be better received without it’s long introductory act and instead opting to be more like an epic Law & Order episode, focusing on the Algiers incident and the trial afterwards. Regardless of its shortcomings however, this film is held up with some exceptional performances from its main actors. Coming a long way from his big break in comedy We’re The Millers, Will Poulter plays the racist cop, Krauss, to psychotic perfection, wanting for nothing but a white hood and a burning cross. John Boyega also shines in his portrayal of the conflicted security guard, working alongside Detroit PD as they terrorize the Algiers residents. Detroit also sees two potential future stars in the perpetually sweaty Ben O’Toole, and Algee Smith, whose acting and vocals are equally outstanding.
Overall, Detroit is a stand-out film, one might even say an important film, as it addresses the reality of police brutality both fifty years ago and in present-day America, leaving its audience with a lot to think about. However, its narrative lets it down greatly, as it fails to explore the Land of the Free’s deep-rooted racism towards African-Americans. Furthermore, the film’s suspense and pacing simply do not reflect the tension and chaos of its content. While Bigelow should be applauded for her effort, such subject matter deserves only the best portrayal.