One of the most compelling reasons to make art is to tell a story that has not yet been told. This need becomes stronger when the untold tale carries some social significance or could add to an important, contemporary conversation. Creating a movie based on fact is a tricky business, particularly when the truth is buried between opposing accounts of the same event. But when one embarks on such a task, they accept the responsibility that accompanies it to be as accurate as possible under the circumstances and within the confines of an entertainment medium. Director Kathryn Bigelow assumed this duty when she decided to make Detroit.
In 1967, the raid of an after-hours club in Detroit was the last straw for a black neighbourhood that felt persecuted by the police and oppressed by authorities. The night unravelled with looting and fires that would rage for five days. While some community leaders called for peace, groups of their disenfranchised neighbours would stand with rocks and bottles against a police force that was becoming increasingly aggressive. Amidst a tornado of lawlessness that gripped the city, people were beaten and shot without provocation. The Algiers Motel seemed to be the only place untouched by the madness as patrons partied long into the night, watching the National Guard roll down nearby streets… until a drunken prank mistaken for sniper fire brings a world of pain and death to the revellers’ doorstep.
Reuniting with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty writer Mark Boal, Bigelow admits she may not have been the first or best choice to tell this story, but she was committed to telling it right. However, she may have overcompensated somewhat. The core story about what happened at the motel, which resulted in the deaths of three black men, is incontrovertibly horrifying. The injustice and inhumanity of those events are incredibly distressing, and matched only by the countless others who turned a blind eye. These unconscionable occurrences are depicted in detail, reimagining every racist slur and warning via a blinding rifle butt. The atmosphere is intense, charged with their opposing fear and power. But it takes a long time to get there.
The film opens by recounting the first days of the rebellion, then introduces audiences to two of the soon-to-be hostages. Upon arriving at the hotel, the young men get acquainted with their neighbours and lament the ruined plans of what was to be an amazing evening. While it’s important to have well-developed characters, the film doesn’t gain much benefit from casually meeting everyone before the cops arrive — characters also introduced earlier, but to somewhat better effect. The racial tensions and discrimination are undiscerning, directed at whoever may be looking in the wrong direction or not praying loud enough. Conversely, while getting to know everyone is not necessary to the narrative, the victims deserve to have names and personalities.
— Malcolm D. Kelley (@therealmalcolm) August 4, 2017
The last act focuses on the sham of a trial in which it’s difficult to ascertain who the accused is: the survivors, including a respected Air Force veteran (Anthony Mackie), or the murdering police officers. The actors do an excellent job drawing the audience into this distressing story with the most difficult role belonging to Will Poulter. His convincing portrayal of the racist cop leading the “investigation” at the motel is chilling; and while it’s unlikely he’ll receive many awards nods for such a despicable character, they wouldn’t be undeserved. John Boyega also plays a key role as a security officer stationed at a nearby grocery store who tries to keep the peace on this hellish night.
The film would definitely benefit from some tightening, particularly in the first hour leading up to the incident, as the two-and-a-half-hour runtime seems unnecessary to the narrative. But regardless, it’s a powerful, well-acted movie that tells a socially relevant story based on true events.