Strap in, readers. I've been thinking about this one for two days now. I am well aware of the controversy surrounding this film. Some are calling "Detroit" one of the best films of the year, others are calling its historical inaccuracies dangerous. What can you call a movie that two polar opposite reactions depending on who you ask? How do you even approach reviewing a movie like this?
Here's the answer to those questions above. I think a movie that causing two radically different reactions is a movie that's really trying to say something. A movie that doesn't give you a comfort zone. A movie that doesn't play by any set of rules. I have read some reviewers say that "Detroit" adds up to lots of anger and no catharsis, but in a weird way, I think that's part of the point. I left the theater on Saturday totally numb from this film, then I read up on social media about what's happening in Virginia, and it was enough to make me want to faint. Unfortunately, we have NOT put the past behind us, and whether you think "Detroit" is the best movie of the year or not, its definitely one of the most important.
How do you review a film like this? Well, you just got to be honest with the experience you had in the theater. Okay, so there may or may not be some wild historical inaccuracies, I have loved several movies with historical inaccuracies. The film also details to us that many parts of the film had to be dramatized because the information needed to fill the gaps was unavailable. After doing some research of my own, what happened at the Algiers Motel in the city of Detroit during the city's 1967 race riots is very confusing. You can go ahead and argue that the way director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal filled those gaps was a way to sell an agenda. But if you do your own research, its abundantly clear that three white police officers abused their powers that night, and at least two black teenagers died at their hands in cold blood because of it.
The movie begins with a beautifully affective animated history of how African Americans migrated from the South to the industrial Northern urban areas. Eventually, white Americans entered those same areas to find work, and their were several racial problems that began to occur, including at least four race riots. Then we move right into a African American party for two black men returning from Vietnam. The party is loud and they don't have a liquor license, so everybody is told to leave. When they go out the front of the building, where the entire party is escorted away in police cars. A large mob appears and when the police haul the party goers away, the mob lashes out. Soon enough, buildings are burnt to the ground, shops are looted and the state police and National Guard begin to move in.
One of the complaints I've heard is that there isn't a lot of time for character development. Its kinda true. The movie really isn't about the riots themselves, but the Algiers Motel incident in particular. We quickly meet Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a guy who works as a security guard protecting a shop from looters, Larry Reed (Algee Smith) who was set to lead sing in the real band The Dramatics, before their venue was completely evacuated due to the riots, Krauss (Will Poulter), Demens (Jack Reynor), and Flynn (Ben O'Toole) three trigger-happy Detroit police officers on duty during the riots. The incident at the Algiers Motel plays out like horrifying blur, and I think that it created that way by design. I will argue though that each character is given enough personality to make their actions count, and when things really go south, you care about the fates of the victims of the incident.
So what exactly happened at the Algiers Motel in July 1967? Well, the night Dismukes was on duty and Larry ended up at the Motel after his venue was evacuated, a black teenager fires at Dismukes and a group of National Guardsmen with a toy cap gun, just to play a prank. Due to allegations of sniper fire during the riot, Dismukes and the National Guard think its a sniper, and police are called over to the Motel to assist the National Guard. The officers who respond to the call are none other than Krauss, Demens and Flynn. They raid the Motel, call everyone in the Motel downstairs and begin searching for a gun, never finding one. Things only go downhill from there, as the three officers turn a racist cheek in trying to find the gun and the shooter. And tactics used to scare information out of the Motel tenants soon becomes something dark and awful.
Before Andy Muschietti directed Stephen King's "IT" that is coming out next month, Cary Fukunaga not only wrote the script but was set to direct as well. Fukunaga hired Will Poulter to play Pennywise, and when Fukunaga dropped out of directing the movie, Poulter also moved on and ended up not playing Pennywise. I only bring this up because when you see Poulter play Krauss in "Detroit," you will understand right away why he got the Pennywise job. I will be surprised if Poulter plays a hero anytime in the next few decades after this blisteringly horrifying performance as Krauss. There is a moment after a particularly brutal moment with a tenant when Krauss flashes a smile at a woman, and it was enough to put nausea in my stomach. Krauss is a terrifying racist cop, and Poulter really embraced what he was given to do here, while Reynor and O'Toole are equally despicable, its Poulter's character that is the ring leader, making sure this bad behavior continues, and its a complete unflinching performance.
John Boyega also does great work here as Dismukes. Playing a guy who is trying really hard to defuse each bad situation, and those good deeds eventually bites him in the butt. Its amazing how many emotions Boyega displays here in this movie, and he plays everything straight and realistic. I have loved Boyega before anybody else did when they saw him in "The Force Awakens." I knew in 2011 when I saw him in "Attack The Block" that he was going to be an important player moving forward, and that seems to be true so far. No doubt though, the best and most iconic performance of in the entire movie is Algee Smith as Larry. We see most of this incident through his eyes, and he becomes the most affected by what happened to him that night. I don't know a thing about Algee Smith, but I think this is going to open several doors for him. I hope he is prepared to travel down all sorts of avenues, because it truly is coming.
Anthony Mackie, John Krasinski, Hannah Murray, Kaitlin Dever and Jeremy Strong all show up to provide enriching support. Kathryn Bigelow proved many times before that she can cast big stars in small roles and make them make those small moments big. She has a real eye for actors and with the wonderful script by Mark Boal, her actors set off fire works. Taken in the clear journalism on display and the engrossing sets of 1960's Detroit all play a part in making this movie a brutal portrait of what happened that summer. It seems like no matter what Bigelow does, controversy seems to follow her (Apparently during the making of "Zero Dark Thirty," Bigelow was exposed to classified information from the Obama Administration). Whether your a stickler on historical accuracy or not, you owe it to yourself to see "Detroit." Its so well made, and so unflinching in its drama, and you can't say that this movie isn't relevant today. Will it be a movie you will want for hosting a movie party? Absolutely not. This is an afternoon movie, no doubt. But still worth seeing.
FINAL GRADE: B+