Review: Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’

Detroit final poster

Detroit | Kathryn Bigelow | August 4

There’s a lot of history to unravel from the Detroit riots of 1967, but the incident at the Algiers Motel stands out in particular. On this fateful night, three young African American men were killed after a tense and confusing encounter with Detroit police offers who thought one of them was shooting at them with a sniper rifle. This one misunderstanding created an unforgettable event that would take the nation by storm.

Director Kathryn Bigelow hones in on this disturbing incident at the Algiers Motel for her new feature Detroit, which throws us right into the fire of that depressing summer night. Bigelow kicks things off with an animation giving us a quick recap about the history of the city of Detroit and what tensions led up to the historic riots that year. This table setting leads us right to the revolving cast of characters, as we quickly drop in on their lives before they all eventually collide, become intertwined, and changed forever.

Detroit still - John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes

There’s Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a humble security guard privately hired to protect a store; Larry (Algee Smith), an aspiring musician, and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore); a bunch of young men and woman partying at the Algiers Motel (Jason Mitchell, Anthony Mackie, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Peyton ‘Alex’ Smith, Malcolm David Kelley, Nathan Davis Jr.); and a trio of trigger happy cops on edge with the riots (Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole).

Bigelow and writer Mark Boal take their time to slowly map out this cast of characters, and while it may be a bit of a slow start, once all three parties come colliding at the Algiers, the film goes all in and is a relentless watch that leaves you on the edge of the seat for the entire duration of the film. The dramatic intensity takes hold as you’re relentlessly forced to watch the horrible acts that the cops bring upon these young men and woman with a racist glint in their eyes. It’s hard to watch, and feels totally real, large in part to the mix of documentary footage that Bigelow works into the film, along with the realistic looking shots by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd that establish the time and place.

Detroit is anchored by the true breakthrough performance of Will Poulter. While many will recognize him from We’re The Millers and he made quite an impact during The Revenant, he truly shines in Detroit, giving a performance that will have audience members hating him with every fiber of their being from start to finish. He truly earns every ounce of that hate. The same can be said for Jack Reynor and Ben O’Toole, who each dive into dark elements of hate that are quite simply unfathomable.

Detroit still - Police versus protestors

There’s no weak link in this performance; John Boyega offers up a sympathetic and grounded performance, the complicated role of an African American in an authority position who doesn’t get the respect of cops or fellow African Americans. There is a nice dynamic between Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore as hungry young kids with their whole lives ahead of them, before this night would change it all. John Krasinski is fine in the role as the police defense attorney Auerbach, but I think he was greatly miscast for the role, as he is unfairly going to stick out as Jim Halpert to most people – sort of taking away from these scenes, even if that is unfair to say.

The middle sequence of terrifying real life horror at the motel is where Detroit really hones in on the intensity and delivers shocking emotional blow after emotional blow. It’s just that the film is a tad bit too long, and although I understand why it needed to stretch out the ending with some court procedurals to make us realize just how flawed the law enforcement and justice system is today, it just took away some of the devastating momentum that it accomplished so well, especially considering that they provided cards with additional information right before the credits hit.

Detroit still - Anthony Mackie

It’s an emotionally exhausting film that really does put you in the shoes of these victims and survivors, an experience that is of course still very relevant to today’s world – one that seems to be headed down a similarly tense and distressing path. There was no justice to be had, just more pain and devastation. Maybe it’s a cold and depressing way to end the film, but that’s just life, and it was the reality for so many of the victims of this incident and remains so for so many people, nearly half a century later.

Rating: 8.0/10