The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

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 A Riot in Progress

John Boyega
John Boyega
Annapurna Distribution
 143 Minutes
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Anthony Mackie 

Watching the movie Detroit is in some ways like seeing satellite images of the planet Earth from outer space. These images begin with a view of the entire planet and gradually zoom until viewers can see an individual building or, at times a person. Similarly, director Kathryn Bigelow’s film begins with an overview of the riots in Detroit that took place in July, 1967. Soon, however, characters whom the audience is only barely aware of congregate at one location, the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25. There, an investigation into a possible sniper quickly turns into a harrowing encounter between white police and the largely black guests in the motel, most of that nearly hour long sequence taking place in a single crowded corridor. At its best, Bigelow’s technique produces moments reminiscent of her best films, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, but the end result is somewhat problematic as well.


The Algiers Motel encounter resulted in the deaths of three young blacks and the arrests and murder trials of three white police officers, all of whom were later acquitted. The details of the case remain unclear even today, but Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal conducted extensive research, including lengthy interviews with Larry Reed and Melvin Dismukes, two people who were present at the motel that night. What they depict may or may not be accurate, but the movie certainly seems plausible and it’s undeniably suspenseful.


The first 30 minutes or so of Detroit focuses on the big picture, from the start of the riot as a protest against a police raid of a popular after hours illegal nightclub to the violence and looting that rapidly spiral out of control over the next two days. Governor George Romney (father of Mitt) calls in the National Guard, and by the night of the 25th, much of the city is on edge. A number of people wind up spending the night at the Algiers, including singer Reed (Algee Smith), whose concert was cancelled due to the threat of violence, and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore). They are staying in the annex, a separate structure adjacent to the Algiers itself.


Reed and Temple begin socializing with some of their fellow guests, one of whom, a hotheaded braggart named Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) decides to shoot a starter pistol out a window at the nearby police and National Guard troops. That proves to be a spectacularly bad decision, as the police storm the building, shoot and kill Cooper as he attempts to flee, and begin interrogating everyone in the annex in an effort to learn where the gun is. Krauss (Will Poulter), the police officer who soon takes charge, is quickly revealed as a vicious racist (he shot and killed a fleeing looter earlier in the movie), and the brutal interrogation techniques the police employ lead to two more deaths before the night is over.


However, Detroit does not end at that point. Instead, having gradually narrowed her focus to that one building for a riveting hour of footage, director Bigelow now zooms outward for another 45 minutes or so, depicting the aftermath. These events notably include the lengthy investigation that led to the arrest of the three officers involved and a depiction of their trial, at which their attorney was able to cast considerable doubt on the testimony of key witnesses and gain an acquittal from an all-white jury. The post-riot fates of some of the victims, including Melvin Dismukes and Larry Reed are also shown.


There are two ways to look at and examine Detroit. The first is on a sheer cinematic level of how well the movie functions as a drama. On this basis, the movie is excellent. Bigelow’s decision to make the movie from the outside in, instead of the usual narrative technique of introducing the main characters in “ordinary” situations is quite effective. We see the riots from the beginning, gaining considerable historical perspective, which allows us to see what led to the victims arriving at the motel and the state of mind of the police and National Guard patrolling the streets. Indeed, some of the footage of the streets resembles scenes from zombie films, in which frightened people scurry for safety in streets in which anyone they encounter could be one of the undead. Of course, there are no zombies in Detroit, but the atmosphere is eerily the same.


Once the confrontation in the motel annex begins, the focus shifts to the interrogating police, most specifically Will Poulter’s racist Krauss. The movie loses a bit of focus here as the cops are allowed to dominate the film with a depiction of the “death game,” an interrogation technique by which they take one suspect into another room and pretend to shoot him in hopes of making the others confess, in this case to the identity of the actual “sniper” and the location of the gun (which in real life was never found). Despite this excess focus on Krauss and his compatriots (one of whom is more a victim of circumstances and poor judgment than anything else), there is no denying that this sequence is as tense as anything in The Hurt Locker and, moreover, lasts for a longer time.


The remainder of the film is also painful, most notably for its insistence on not giving viewers a “happy ending.” There is no sense of justice triumphing in the end, precisely because there was no justice in this case. Audiences will leave the theater on edge and dissatisfied and that is precisely the intent of Bigelow and Boal. Ironically, the movie in Bigelow’s filmography that Detroit most closely resembles is Strange Days, a commercial failure when released that similarly captures the same tension in a mob-like situation. A big difference between the two is that Strange Days, as fiction, was able to wrap up its story and punish the villains in a way that Detroit does not and cannot.


Of course, Detroit isn’t just a dramatic recreation of the Algiers Motel incident. Instead, for many, it’s the only cinematic depiction ever of the riots themselves. As such, the film has come under criticism for failing to adequately explore the background and events of the rioting (43 people were killed in total, not just the four depicted in the movie). This riot was the third largest in scale in American history, and an argument can easily be made that Detroit is far from a definitive examination of the riot. However, the film was never intended as such, just as no Holocaust film ever made has been intended as a definitive portrayal of the epic scale of the Final Solution. It is only as more movies are made that the entire nature of an event like the 1967 Detroit riot can come into focus.


Detroit is not a documentary of the riot, and it may or may not be accurate in its portrayal of the events it depicts. It is, however, about as powerful a two and a half hours of cinema as audiences are likely to see this year, and a movie that quite rightfully will shock and leave audiences disquieted. My guess is that harsh reaction from some critics and a mediocre box office have probably doomed its Oscar chances, but Detroit is still one of the best movies viewers will have a chance to see this year.   

In this scene, John Boyega discovers that he is a suspect in the Algiers Motel shootings.

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Detroit (2017) on IMDb