The Detroit riot is one of the darkest chapters of the American civil rights era. With African American’s denied every civil liberty in their own country and abused by the institution’s meant to protect them, riots were sadly inevitable. Over five days two thousand buildings were destroyed, seven thousand were arrested, and, in one horrific event, three lives were lost during a motel raid. The new film, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, aims to tell what happened inside that hotel.
Even with its rich and tragic source material and despite its cast and direction, Detroit is a superficial look at police brutality. At time’s vicious and raw in its depiction but the narrative’s lack of context and perspective makes this a race relation film to appease the masses.
Set during the five-day riots that levelled Detroit in 1967 and after the raid of a bar, the city rebels against the brutality faced by residents from police. Seeking sanctuary at The Algiers Motel are singer Larry (Algee Smith), his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore), a war veteran Greene (Anthony Mackie) and two young women. All become embroiled in another raid overseen by violent officer Philip Krauss, (Will Poulter) and security guard Melvin Dismukes, (John Boyega). Inside the residents are brutalised and made to play a vicious game where their lives hang in the balance.
The film marks the third collaboration between director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. The pair previously worked together on The Hurt Locker as well as Zero Dark Thirty. For the film, screenwriter Boal interviewed the surviving hotel residents to gain insight into what happened.
Despite the producer’s research, the film demonstrates a frustrating lack of context. A small animation establishes a post-civil war era with a police force ‘known to be aggressive’. A straight forward, borderline civil, bar raid is used as the catalyst for the riots, before all hell breaks loose on the city streets. The sheer volume of oppression, dehumanisation, and brutality faced by the residents is never established. The following riot scenes play out as a warning to the ‘irresponsible’ inhabitants, who are ultimately only harming themselves. Without solid context of what triggered the riots, the film starts on shaky ground.
Yet quickly the narrative introduces us to Krauss who shoots a black man in the back as if he is hunting game. Wrong as this may be, he is let back on the streets and soon himself, his fellow officers, and Dismukes converge on The Algiers Motel, after hearing a random gun shot. Once inside the hotel walls the film does not let up on the violence and abuse the inhabitants will endure. This is the film’s most engaging yet horrendous sequence: A prolonged assault on the residents and the audience who are pulled into the violence with them. Bigelow has created atmosphere and intensity through her use of the camera. Her style puts you into the small confides of the motel and the events playout in horrific real time. The motel hallway acts as centre stage while each resident is pulled into smaller rooms that become torture chambers. The cinematic style captures the fear of the events while always placing the police in the position of power and abuser.
In the film’s final act, the events are played out in court for politics, misconception, and an all-white jury to deliberate. Mirroring almost every unnecessary death of an unarmed black citizen in America, the ending is predestined.
The narrative revolves around multiple characters until they collide at the motel. Despite what you learn of these characters, none feel truly developed. No more so than John Boyega’s Melvin Dismukes. His motivations are never really established, despite claiming to stay to deescalate the situation. He has little dialogue throughout the film and despite Boyega’s strong screen presence, his role becomes lost amongst other players.. As an ensemble cast you could not put more talent on a screen than seen in Detroit. Yet with these underwritten characters, the talent feels lost. Boyega and Mackie, in particular, feel underused. The two strongest characters play out against one another as Larry and Officer Krauss portray one victim and abuser.
Smith’s Larry makes for the most varied of the motel residents, torn between wanting to leave the motel alive but wanted to also stand his ground. With the exception of an outbreak of song (mid motel raid), his characters pulls you into his dilemma and his fears.
Opposite this is baby faced Will Poulter. Playing a character with such deep-rooted racism, he cannot concede that he has done anything unlawful, despite witnessing his repeated crimes. Able to switch from cold and calm to malicious, this is a new direction for the actor and his abilities on screen.
For the masses Detroit is a fresh, brutal and harrowing depiction of police brutality. For those who have always known this was a deep-seated issue, the lack of context and wonky perspective makes the film a rehash of an obvious reality. Harrowing it may be at times, with a brilliant cast, but this is not the film the victims and survivors of the riots deserved.