Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Will Poulter
Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language
2 hrs. 23 min.
Oscar-winning producer and director Kathryn Bigelow shows no trepidation in choosing film projects that are meticulously realistic, and challenging to watch. We saw that with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. She’s an auteur who suffers no fools, and holds no hands. With that in mind, don’t expect comfort or resolution from Detroit. Working with longtime collaborator, screenwriter Mark Boal, who fashioned a script adapted from written materials and interviews with those present, Bigelow delivers a rigorous exercise in history that is not for the faint of heart.
Fifty years ago, as police raided an unlicensed, after-hours party, racial tensions in Detroit, Michigan, erupted in violence and flames — an event known as the 12th Street riot. At the outset, Bigelow sets the stage with an animated summation of the events at the root of the rage: a brief chronicle of the racism, segregation and degradation that greeted African Americans who fled the South and settled north. Painting a picture of seething hostility, the film does not follow an exact tick-tock of the riot’s events. It focuses on an incident at the Algiers Motel, a night of terror that will be difficult for some to comprehend, yet it happened, the night of July 25-26, 1967.
Looking for what they believed to be a sniper, Detroit police officers, Michigan State Police and Michigan Army National Guardsmen burst in and seized and held several people, including two white women visiting from Ohio. The tension is constant, the images raw, chilling, visceral, brutal and in-your-face. There is scarcely time to breathe between the hate of one officer (Will Poulter), who’s already shot a looter in the back, and the sadistic taunting and beating of all parties, including the young women. It is dark, harrowing, excruciating and stomach-turning. That it’s based on actual events makes the bile rise in your throat.
Almost a figure of reason in this storm of savage degeneracy is a black security guard, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), who discreetly tries to aid the young men and women. The aspect of white girls being with African-American men triggers even more fury from the Detroit officers. In war, what transpires might be tantamount to torture, and results in the death of three people.
As night turns to day, the law catches up with the rogue lawmen, yet there is no catharsis. From that, Detroit gleans its power, its horrific force. Those in the seats around me watched with mouths agape; all popcorn-munching ceased. Bigelow’s aim, of course, was to expose grim history, 30 feet high, and splash it with harsh light. She succeeded, and will likely be awarded for it.
I remember the cover of Life Magazine that summer: a dead child, probably my age, on a Detroit street in a pool of his own blood. If a film dredges the memories of those who were kids then, I can only guess at the reaction of someone realizing for the first time that this could happen in America. I imagine that was another of Bigelow’s goals, a grotesque reflection in a dirty mirror, a JPEG to be painfully perused by those who did not know, or those who irascibly deny.
The performances in Detroit are taut. As two of the men detained in the Algiers Motel, Anthony Mackie is stoic as Robert Greene, and Algee Smith is equally strong as Larry Reed, an original member of the soul group The Dramatics. I want to recommend Detroit to any- and everyone who appreciates an outstanding achievement in cinema. But prepare to be disturbed, during and after the film, and maybe to pray that the present can stave off a recurrence of the past.