I wasn’t initially going to review Detroit for many reasons that I’ll get into in a moment, but I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I found myself getting angrier while wondering why no-one else has picked up on the stupidity in this film. Maybe it is just me, maybe I am focusing too much on such a minor part of the film, but it’s a minor part that sets off the entire second act. And the fact that the film refuses to even acknowledge it is why it pisses me off.
A few disclaimers before I start, I know this is based on a true story and I don’t actually know what happened that night. If this is a pitch-perfect reconstruction then I don’t know what to say. Also the idiocy in this film knows no race and I would hate the decisions made by these characters whether they were black or white, so that’s not a factor. Finally, I admit that I have no knowledge of black culture, let alone black culture during the 60’s, so maybe what I dislike about the film comes from a place I know nothing about. If someone wants to call me out and school my ass then be my guest, but until then I’ve got some hate to spout.
The film is set during the Detroit Riots in 1967, where black residents are fed up with the racial abuse of the predominantly white police department. These individuals start burning and looting the neighborhood, turning the place into a war-zone, and forcing the National Guard to be called in to try and contain the violence.
On July 25th, R&B group The Dramatics find themselves stuck in the middle of a riot and are separated. The lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) end up at the Algiers Motel waiting for the others. While doing so they start talking to two white girls, Julie-Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) who introduce them to their friends Carl (Jason Mitchell) and Aubrey (Nathan Davis Jr.). Carl plays a trick on Larry and Fred by threatening them with a starter pistol, and after they leave, Carl plays a prank on some nearby National Guard soldiers by firing at them.
Thinking that a sniper has been taking shots at them, the National Guard and the local police storm the Algiers looking for the shooter. With Officer Krauss (Will Poulter), a violent racist with self-righteous streak, leading the charge and Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a private security guard who was with the National Guard, standing watch. Carl is killed after trying to escape and the rest of the Motel’s guests are rounded up, Larry, Fred, Julie-Ann, Karen, Aubrey and Vietnam vet Greene (Anthony Mackie). Others are all held under suspicion until the police get their answers, when nobody is willing to talk, Krauss has his men stage mock executions to scare the others into confession.
And from there, the night only gets worse.
Even without the real-life basis – which only makes this a far more harrowing experience – this is a great set-up for a racial thriller. Krauss’ focus on finding the truth blinds him to the slow descent into violence that the night is going and by the time it’s too late to turn back, the attempts to cover his ass just make it worse for everyone involved. This is the sort of thing that you could imagine happening and the fact that it did happen 50 years ago, makes the message that much harder but important to hear.
BUT… this is where the film crashes and burns for me and never recovers. This entire section of the film, from the moment the police arrive to the next morning, was brought about by Carl shooting his toy gun at the police. When the police arrive, they want to know who the shooter is and where the weapon went. And not one single person tells them it was a toy.
I cannot wrap my head around this logic, the police are looking for a gun and the only gun on the scene is a goddamn toy and no-one thinks to tell the police that. It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together to realize that Carl got them into this mess. All they had to do to end this night was to tell the police about the toy gun. It’s not like they owed Carl any loyalty, he was dead, and barring some kind of stupid show of strength against the police. Overall, I can’t see any reason why this was such a non-issue.
It would be one thing if the police weren’t told about the toy gun, but it literally becomes a non-part of the film. After Carl shoots the gun again, it’s mentioned much later during an off-handed comment by Julie-Ann to Melvin and I’m thinking, ‘Finally, he’ll tell Krauss they’re looking for a toy gun and the film can move on’. But then we never see Melvin again until the trail where the gun is brought up for a third and final time, like it was common goddamn knowledge. The hell with that, the film literally has its own characters actively trying to come up with some other excuses like they’re in the wrong house or they were raised right to obey the law. But none of this matters because the police are in the right house and not one of these sorry pricks have any self-preservation skills.
I am in no way advocating what Krauss and the police did, they took advantage of a shitty situation, and what they did to the innocent black men is vile, pathetic, and all too familiar in today’s society. But it was a shitty situation brought about by idiocy, the cops were there for a reason, and nobody thought of the one simple thing that could’ve got them out of it. There were so many other ways this could’ve gone, like mention the gun, but have the cops not believe them. Or have the cops find the toy gun, but hide it to keep their mistake a secret by doing anything, except ignore the basic pissing knowledge that the main plot of this film was started by a bloody toy gun.
While character decisions were dumb as hell and character development wasn’t all that high due to the nature of the film, acting on the whole was good. Larry had the strongest character arc through the film, a man with big dreams and a bright future suddenly finding himself and his friend on the wrong end of racism and putting that future in jeopardy. Larry and Fred are two of the most proactive victims, but it’s usually Larry who makes the first move. He doesn’t want to lay over and submit, but at the same time he knows the cops will beat him or worse yet he gives them a reason to. Where he ends up by the end of the film is a tragic showing of the larger effects of racial violence.
Karen, Julie-Ann, and Greene don’t have a large part to play in the story but their presence is felt, being two white girls in a line-up of black men. Karen and Julie-Ann face a lot of sexual threats and insults with the cops wondering why they’re screwing black men, it adds another level of tension to the already fraying situation. Greene didn’t seem to have a place in the story, he wasn’t with any of the groups, he wasn’t there with the gun, and he kept calm throughout the whole proceeding. In essence though that was his point, being a soldier he was use to authority, and knew it was easier to play along. His calm demeanor offered a new insight and the fact that he was still beaten by the police was another example of just how deep the racism was, even for a veteran.
Poulter does a solid job as the film’s main villain Krauss, aided by his cohorts Flynn (Ben O’Toole) – a vile piece of shit arguably even worse than he is – and Demens (Jack Reynor) – a new arrival to his team – Krauss takes over the film with an iron fist and sense of self-righteousness a mile wide. What’s scary is that Krauss believes he’s doing the right thing, he’s looking for a cop killer, and doesn’t care what kind of force or trauma he inflicts to find out who it is. When he realizes that he’s dealing with a group of black men, he slowly but surely unleashes everything he has at them because to him they’re just murderous scum that don’t deserve human dignity. Poulter does a great job as the film’s true piece of shit, even his superiors call him on his bullshit, but it’s enough to make him stand out.
As much as it pains me to admit, John Boyega is the film’s weakest link. His portrayal of Melvin just feels out of place in this story, he was only with the guards to give them coffee, he has no reason to follow them to the Motel, and when he does you keep waiting for him to be the stalwart hero, but he’s just far too passive a character. Part of that works when he tells one of victims to just survive the night because he knows survival is more important than fighting. Throughout the rest of the film, it’s mysterious why he’s even mentioned at all. Afterwards, the film shows Melvin as a suspect for the killings, but nothing even comes of that and it seems to be a very important plot point. Maybe it’s just me, but since Melvin never spoke a word at the trials, I didn’t know whether he was being charged with anything or if he was just there. I like John Boyega a lot, but this character just didn’t work for him or the film.
As much as I’m dumping on the film, I cannot deny that Kathryn Bigelow can still rake in the tension. I’ve been on board with Bigelow since Hurt Locker and where it counts, this film works. The accuracy of the time period is fantastic with the use of archival footage and newspaper headlines to remind the audience that this actually happened, that America at one point was a literal war-zone, and that three black men were murdered by the police. I’ve seen some people complain about the length of the film and while I think 2 and a half hours is a tad long, I like how Bigelow used that time in the first act to set the scene. It showed us the city of Detroit, the poverty, people unable to move without tripping over burnt cars, destroyed buildings, and the police station literally choked with arrested black men to the point where no-one could walk through the hallways. Within the parallels in today’s society, it happened within the lifetime of several people still around today.
Once the second act kicks off, Bigelow starts really grinding on the tension, I’m going to ignore the toy gun problem here because I’ve already went into that enough and just focus on what Bigelow is doing as a director. As soon as Krauss and his gang have the victims against the wall, the mood is set for what has to be the next hour, but Bigelow never lets up on just how frightening such a scene was. The entire Motel sequence is one long, slow draw of the knife, it makes a good portion of the film, but it’s such a well crafted set-piece that you don’t realize how long you’ve spent there, only that you want to leave soon as you can.
Part of me wanted to love Detroit, I wanted the Bigelow and Boal trilogy to be three for three and I went into this film with high hopes. To an extent, those hopes were reached, the acting, the direction, even the basis for the story were all strong, and on those elements alone I would give the film an 4/5
But I cannot ignore how stupid it was for the toy gun to be ignored, I love the Motel sequence as a set-piece, but the entire time I wanted to yell at the screen for someone to say something, even if it didn’t lead anywhere it would’ve at least been addressed. And yes, maybe I am over-thinking this, maybe because I’ve seen too many movies, I’m more inclined to notice the little details that wouldn’t bother anyone else. Like I said there’s still a good, well crafted movie here, and I definitely recommend it if you want to make up your own mind. But for me personally, that one little insignificant detail carried so much weight that it knocked the film down heavily, and ruined what could’ve been a harrowing experience.
I am giving Detroit a 3 out of 5 Hairpieces.