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Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s intense, based-on-true-events drama that takes place during the 1967 Detroit riots is part historical thriller and part social commentary. It is a film that has something to say about the relationship between a community and its police, racism, power and fear. At times it is very powerful (and difficult to watch). At other times, it is too broad in its characterizations. It also drags quite a bit in its final act. However, the centerpiece of the film, a tense confrontation between police and the mostly black inhabitants of the Algiers Motel, is strong enough to make up for the film’s flaws.
The opening section shows the beginning of the riots and establishes the mood of the city at that time. At this point, the screenplay (by Jewish writer/producer and Oscar winner for best original screenplay (in 2009 for Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker) Mark Boal) introduces several characters who will be important later on. The most significant are Krauss (Will Poulter), a racist police officer who uses the power of his position to treat the citizens the way he thinks they deserve, Dismukes (John Boyega of the new Star Wars trilogy), a security guard just trying to keep the peace, and Larry and Fred (Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore) a member of an up-and-coming music group and his friend who end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. These characters are not given a lot of depth, but the actors add enough detail to ensure that their story still has impact.
Those characters and more all end up at the Algiers Motel in Detroit a few days into the riots. That incident, which begins with an angry black resident (Jason Mitchell) firing a starter’s pistol to scare some police officers and ends with three black men dead and more wounded, is a true story that has been somewhat embellished for the screen. The complete story of what went on that day has not been told, so Boal pieces together the parts of the story that are known and dramatizes the rest. The result is quite effective. This is a very sensitive topic and the concern, as with any film based on a true story, is that making it more cinematic could diminish the significance and lasting impact of the real people or events. But for me, the action never overwhelmed the story that was being told.
The opening does a good job of setting the mood for the rest of the film, but the closing scenes, which deal with the aftermath of the Algiers incident, go on for far too long. It seems as though the filmmakers thought we needed to see the effect the incident had on all the major characters. The individual characters weren’t established well enough to make that much detail necessary. With that being said, despite the amount of time they take up, those scenes still feel rushed. There is enough material there to fill up another movie. But the pacing and emotion don’t match what has come before.
Despite its weaknesses, Detroit is one of the more noteworthy films to come out this year. It shows an important moment in our country’s history and tries to add something of interest to the current conversation about race in America. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it doesn’t. But it is definitely worth seeing.
4 out of 5 stars
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews