On the third night of the 1967 Detroit riots, a largely forgotten incident took place. Within the walls of the Algiers Motel, a group of African-American men were questioned by police. On one of those walls, they, along with two white women, were questioned about a rooftop sniper that didn’t exist. In Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Detroit, the Oscar winner tells the story. It is a powerful story, and a poignant one at that. Bigelow, whose previous films such as Zero Dark Thirty explore the gritty nature of true life events. Detroit isn’t the crowning achievement of her unofficial true life events trilogy, The Hurt Locker still holds that distinction in my opinion. But Detroit is a raw, gut-wrenching and superbly well done piece of cinema that pulls no punches with its true life story.
The events of the film follow the shootings at the Algiers Motel in Detroit. I prefer not to give much of the story away and let the viewer appreciate the film for what it is. But, the movie features a cast of Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, John Boyega, Jack Reynor, John Krasinski, Jacob Lattimore and Jason Mitchell among others. Normally, I would use the word “stars” in that sentence. However, one of the many strengths of the film is that no one is the star. Bigelow is able to humanize the characters and it isn’t a showcase for any particular actor.
Nonetheless, Will Poulter is a stand out in the film. Poulter plays a sadistic and sociopathic patrol officer with the Detroit Police Department. Poulter is vicious and a blatant racist, a role I’m sure was difficult for him. Watching the film, you can’t help notice you never feel like you are watching actors. With all that said, it is Algee Smith who really stands out amongst the crowd of talented performers. Smith plays Larry, an aspiring singer and co-founder of the real life group The Dramatics. Larry’s character arc is a ultimately devastating one. The writer of the film and frequent Bigelow collaborator, Mark Boal perhaps described it best in an article he penned for Vulture that Larry’s life was changed because of a “random twist of fate”. It’s a twist of fate beautifully portrayed by Smith who may have found his breakout role.
Bigelow complements her actors performances with a gritty, documentary style of shooting that puts the viewer right in the middle of the action. She and Boal, choose to tell the story and put us in the room with the men and women. In a way that only Bigelow seems to be able to pull off, she supplants morality and character motives for visceral storytelling.
There is an overarching sense of dread and helplessness you can’t help but feeling while watching the movie. Detroit is an emotional gut punch that while in the middle of the torture and police brutality, never lets up. The movie is structured into three very recognizable acts. We first meet the characters central to the second act in the first. Bigelow’s direction and Boal’s script do an excellent job of breaking down the events act by act. Though the films runtime pushes nearly two and a half hours, rarely is any minute wasted. It is a wonderfully constructed narrative that subverts the typical action packed third act, for a tense second act. The film doesn’t come to the dramatic climax you’d expect. In choosing to depict all of the major storyline in the films second act, Bigelow and Boal let the third act show the devastating outcome in the third act.
Speaking of that second act, it is intense, harrowing and one of the best sequences in a film this year. Every aspect of filmmaking is put on display in the second act. Incredible direction, powerful acting and some brilliant editing are put on display in the middle portion of the film. Bigelow deftly balances some intimate closeups and wide shots of the group as a whole. You never know what is going to happen with each minute that passes, but the longer it goes on, the more dire the circumstances become. We, as the viewer become aware of this, and it creates some taut and crushing sequences.
If there is anywhere the film could improve, it’s to give the audience a better cultural context of what happened to cause the Detroit riots of 1967. The movie opens with an animated sequence describing the history of black migration to the north. The sequence, not the content of it, but the way the content is shown feels out of place. With the way Bigelow moves the films 140 minute runtime along, some time explaining the cultural context behind the riots and the causality of the events would have been a welcome addition. I think to appreciate it on another level, you’d really have to be familiar with the significance of the events that took place at the Algiers. Among all of that, I’m not entirely sure how re-watchable Detroit will ultimately be.
Detroit is an uneasy but necessary watch. Perhaps the most topical film of the year, it is a painful study of what humans were capable of simply because of the color of another’s skin. Often the best films about historical events, are the stories that inexplicably get lost along the way. The story of the Algiers was one I was not familiar with. And, the story itself, as depicted in the film, is one that we must wonder about how it got forgotten. Bigelow and Boal have made a film that will assure that this story won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Especially in the current culture of the United States.