Movie Review: Detroit
R | 2h 23min
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
by Jason Koenigsberg
Kathryn Bigelow, the director of always audacious and intensely thrilling films has reunited with writer Mark Boal for the third consecutive movie after their highly successful one-two punch of Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker (2009) and the equally impressive Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Now they turn their talents to a fifty year travesty that has mostly gone unnoticed and ignored yet demands our attention. This film was released practically on the fiftieth anniversary of it’s subject matter. The race riots in Detroit during the summer of 1967 are similar to the ones in Watts, Boston and Newark. Sadly this film is relevant today since in recent years we have seen more police brutality against African-Americans and subsequent riots in New York, St. Louis and Baltimore. Things have improved across the nation for minorities over the past fifty years since the events of this picture, but sadly we still have a long way to go until racism is not an issue and true equality is achieved.
Detroit opens up with a mural that transforms into a phenomenal animated sequence with text providing a history of race relations in the United States starting with the Great Migration when African-Americans fled the south for jobs in the big cities up north, all the way to the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam era of the late 1960’s. This scene was reminiscent of the opening exposition from Argo (2012), and like that Ben Affleck Best Picture winner, it was one of the best scenes in Detroit.
Some of the weakest scenes involved both the riots and the ruthless police interrogation that makes up the middle of the movie. Early on the audience sees African-Americans mistreated and unfairly arrested by the police. After a large group are taken away, the immediate response without even thinking was for mob of spectators to smash in stores windows and steal whatever they could with no explanation as if this behavior is the norm. One might be left thinking that for this mob mentality two wrongs make a right. Diving more into the psychological reasons why a group would immediately start breaking the law after the law has mistreated some of their own would have been worthwhile.
All of the main characters were very thinly drawn and developed. Only John Boyega as a security guard who gets caught up in a nasty incident between a group of young people and the police gave a performance that resonated and deserved an emotional response. The weakest moments took place during the merciless interrogation at a hotel between the police and a group of African-American males and two white women. Some of those scenes were suspenseful, yet some of them felt like they were outtakes from one of The Purge movies. Even more disappointing was that some of the moments from The Purge films work better than the ones in Detroit.
Kathryn Bigelow has proven herself to be one of the finest directors of kinetic, action-packed suspense. Her vision of Detroit is an intense war zone during the riots and a horrifying game of cat-and-mouse during a brutal police interrogation at a hotel. Detroit like many other major cities during this time, and sadly even today, was very segregated. For the first time in her filmography she uses real footage mixed in with re-enacted scenes she directed. This combination proved to be very effective because even if the audience picks up on what is real footage and what is staged, it drives home the importance of the story being based on nonfiction. Race riots and police brutality are themes Kathryn Bigelow explored once before in her outstanding futuristic action-thriller Strange Days (1995) which takes place in Los Angeles at the dawn of the new millennium and is clearly inspired by the Rodney King incident and riots that erupted after the police were found not guilty of any wrongdoing. Detroit explores racial injustice even deeper within the police and court system in less subtle ways than other films like the recent Straight Outta Compton (2014), but this film is just as important as that one. This films greatest strength is that it acts as a snapshot of an African-American experience while living in hostile urban conditions. Detroit is a cautionary tale of what has happened and we certainly hope does not happen again to any racial group in our nation.
See Detroit and then check out Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, a criminally overlooked, highly influential and thrilling vision of our future as well as being an intelligent allegory on race relations.