Detroit is a brutal and messy view from the outside

Director: Kathryn Bigelow Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Anthony Mackie, Jack Reynor Running Time: 143 minutes

Though the clothes and the music and the specific events make Detroit‘s setting of 1967 clear, it’s shot in a haphazard, shaky manner that suggests that this could be happening right now. The point is pretty clear of course, as the events recreated here, racial inequality, police brutality, an unjust legal system, are still happening right now. Bigelow’s film could just as easily be called Ferguson and while that does make its messages abundantly clear and easy to agree with, it may also be the biggest drawback. Here Bigelow and screenwriting collaborator Mark Boal roll up their sleeves and deliver their cinematic treatise on racism in the United States. There’s anger here to be sure, but it’s an scattergun anger, displeasure at a distance and what that results in is a film that’s unrelenting but unfocused. Are these Bigelow and Boal’s sleeves to roll up?

An animated sequence opens Detroit. Serving as a primer for the film’s history lesson, it depicts the Great Migration in the United States and the disenfranchisement of black people in American inner cities. It’s stylistic but out of place with the rest of the film, establishing a disorienting beginning that takes its time before kicking the plot into motion. After the animation comes several scenes establishing the beginning of the 12th Street Riot, the context in which the film’s actual story of racist police violence at the Algiers Motel takes place. Mixing real footage and sound with her own shaky cam shots of rioting and the intervention of the Army and National Guard, Bigelow aims for a feeling of reality as she gradually reveals her principal characters. Most importantly there’s Algee Smith as Larry Reed, who dreams of making it in Motown with his R&B group The Dramatics and who ends up in the Algiers with his younger friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore). Will Poulter heads up a trio of cops who are seething at the rioting and itching to do something about it, with Ireland’s Jack Reynor among his unfettered crew, while Star Wars John Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a security guard who starts off certain that if he simply keeps his head down and says and does the right thing, he and others like him will get out alright. Though people are trying to lay low in the Algiers until the riot blows over, a blank shot from the gun of Carl Cooper (Straight Outta Compton‘s Jason Mitchell) prompts the overzealous cops to enter, and when they see two white girls (including Game of Thrones‘ Hannah Murray) in the company of Anthony Mackie’s Vietnam vet, all hell breaks loose.

Detroit becomes embroiled in the Algiers, with the film’s extended second act serving as a hard and unblinking stare into the faces of the audience as the corrupt cops torture the guests while Melvin and a National Guard officer look on, disapprovingly but unable to act. Similarly to the likes of Michael Fassbender’s in 12 Years a Slave, Poulter stands out through being the one we’re meant to react to most, his snarling, sneering performance dominating the frame while his victims cower bloodied against the wall. The black actors, having established themselves as people in the first act, unfortunately and near-literally blend into the background, a united but general image of suffering. It’s clear which side that Bigelow is on, but whatever her intentions, this long stretch of the film is at an emotional remove, firmly out of its leads heads. That does actors like Mackie and in particular Boyega (set up as a lead) a disservice by giving them little to do, one that arguably does the history it seeks to highlight a disservice in the way that it depicts it. “It’s time we knew” say the posters, but the film admits to recreating the muddled events in the hotel. So what we know of this event in African American history is being told by white American voices. Tut tut at these bad cops (there are plenty of misplaced ‘good ones’ delivering clunky dialogue about how what’s happening is wrong, but doing nothing about it). Tut tut at John Krasinski, playing a stereotypical bad guy lawyer to deprive the victims of dignity or justice. This is a film that is keenly, self-consciously aware of what you’re supposed to think of the white people in it. But what about the black people, whose story this is supposed to be in the first place?

In a film as brutal and messy as this, with such raw images jumping from the screen, it would be hard not to be stirred emotionally. And in Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore, Detroit occasionally grasps an empathetic core, only to lost it again to focus on more violence. Larry Reed wants to be a singer. What does Fred Temple want? Who are these victims? More capable critics have articulated Detroit‘s failings in this regard, but too often they just become Victims with a capital V. Bigelow and Boal are technically capable, and intellectually interested in showing that Black Lives Matter, but not what a Black Life is. They are on the outside, looking outside, struggling to go deeper than to acknowledge that injustice exists, struggling to show how that injustice effects people and where it really comes from.

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Detroit is in Irish cinemas from Friday August 25.

About Luke Dunne

Luke is a writer, film addict and Dublin native who loves how much there is for film fans in his home county. A former writer for FilmFixx and the Freakin' Awesome Network, he founded Film In Dublin to pursue his dual dreams of writing about film and never sleeping ever again.

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