Kathryn Bigelow’s much anticipated docudrama depicting the 1967 rebellion in Detroit has been released widely and is garnering a divided reaction. And for good reason. The film is both a taut, engrossing and harrowing look at history, and an over-long tale that at times loses its focus.
Detroit begins with a quick history lesson tracing the source of the racially-charged unrest of the 1960s all the way back to the Great Migration of the late 1800s, when freed slaves traveled North to cities like Detroit to chase the American Dream. Instead, what they encountered was a less formalized form of segregation and institutional racism. Bigelow’s film gives a brief overview of the start of the rebellion in Detroit, depicting looting and the police reaction. She also includes real news footage from the era, including a statement made by then Michigan governor George Romney. This adds a nice bit of authenticity to the film’s storytelling, cementing it in factual information.
However, the front end of the film fails to strongly connect the audience with specific characters. We start to get to know a few men who will become important in the heart of the story down the line, but otherwise, it’s a quick recounting of a bunch of events that aren’t necessarily put into clear context. We see a rather drawn out scene of the raid on a blind pig in the city, and we see bottles thrown at the police as they arrest the African-American party-goers and take them to the police station in a series of paddy wagons. However, it’s never really made clear that the arrests, and the reaction of the crowds who gather is indeed the start of the rebellion. But more problematic to the film is the lack of connection to characters in this early segment of the film. The motivation of the police for arresting these people is unclear, as is the reason for the reaction of the crowds. It’s successful in representing historical events, but lacks proper context to make an emotional impact on the viewer.
Soon after, we see the National Guard roll into town and one of the Guardmen in a tank shoots at a “sniper” he believes is shooting at them from an upper-level apartment window. Before the shots, we see that what he believes to be a sniper is in fact a reflection from a mirror, and the room he riddles with bullets belongs to a young girl. What Bigelow fails to make clear is that little girl was killed by those shots. The aftermath of the shots fired by the guardsman is never depicted. What this does do is to set the scene for the paranoia experienced by law enforcement who were fearful of snipers during this time.
The strength of the film is its depiction of the siege on the Algiers Motel and its annex. This is the most substantial chunk of the film, and it’s here that Bigelow’s finesse and directing skill is on full display. The choices she makes in shooting these scenes with handheld cameras puts the audience right in the motel, feeling the same terror the men and women in the hotel feel. We experience the claustrophobic spaces, the fear of what the police might do next. The pressure of the scene builds to the point it is difficult to watch. You want it to stop. You want it to just be over. But you can’t stop watching. The story is too compelling, even though the outcome is pre-ordained. It’s a testament to Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal’s writing that despite previous knowledge of the events, the audience is sure to be on the edge of their seats.
Unfortunately, the scenes that precede and follow the Algiers Motel portion of the film fail to evoke the same emotion and relatability. The final portion of the film involves an investigation and courtroom scenes, but they don’t pack the same raw, emotional punch. They also cause the film to lose focus and become overly long (the run time for the film is two hours and 23 minutes).
The acting in the film is superb throughout. John Boyega takes an adept turn as Dismukes, the security guard/autoworker who works hard and trusts in the system, despite knowing of the inherent racism of the power structure within the city. Dismukes is branded as an “Uncle Tom” for his willingness to turn a blind eye to police brutality, but Boyega’s performance allows us a glimpse inside his motivations thorough his nuanced portrayal of this conflicted character. Anthony Mackie is solid as the Vietnam veteran Greene, who returns from the war to end up in a war zone. He represents the many African-American men who sacrificed to fight for their country, only to be brutalized by police and the white power structure upon their return home.
While Boyega and Mackie are great in their respective roles, mark my words, Algee Smith will be nominated for Best Actor, and just might pick up an Oscar for his depiction of Larry, an up-and-coming singer in the band The Dramatics. Smith dominates the screen every time he’s on camera. His character’s evolution is the soul of the film, and his performance is nothing short of perfection. Will Poulter deserves mention, as well, for his spot on depiction of the racist, corrupt Detroit police officer Krauss. The juxtaposition of his babyface and his completely repellant behavior and ideology is especially effective.
Overall, the film is powerful, and makes a clear statement against police brutality and institutionalized racism. While the film looks back at the tragedies of the past, it also serves as a wake-up call for present-day America. It’s impossible to miss the parallels between the actions of police in 1967 and modern incidents of police brutality and the BLM movement. What is it they say about history again? It seems that this film is asking all of us to not only recognize the mistakes of our past, but to work to make today a better, more just society.