Crime Detroit

'Detroit' Film Review: The ugly truth amid a summer of glossy blockbusters

August 2, 2017Ben MK

Summer is traditionally the time when Hollywood rolls out sleek sequel after polished reboot, but Detroit is not that kind of movie. With its rough-around-the-edges, cinéma vérité style, director Kathryn Bigelow's latest might be described as ugly. However, it's only fitting, as the film's visual aesthetic acts as a reflection of its subject matter — an account of one of the ugliest and most disturbing chapters in American history.

A story of the events that have come to define the 1967 Detroit riots, Detroit doesn't boast a typical narrative either. Instead, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal sketch the historical context in broad strokes only, withholding their energy for the film's grueling recreation of the violence that transpired on the night of July 25th into the early hours of July 26th, 50 years ago, when white members of the Detroit police force and the National Guard stormed the Algiers Motel, resulting in the deaths of three African American men, the youngest of whom was just 17-years-old.

The ensemble cast — an effective mix of recognizable faces and relative unknowns — proves invaluable when it comes to filling in any gaps in the storytelling. We may not learn much about their characters' backstories, and in some cases, we don't even seem to be privy to their characters' names, but the film's visceral gut-punch hangs on their performances. Ultimately, the movie's all-too-relevant message about racial injustice relies on viewers being embroiled in the horrifying intensity of the situation, and, thankfully, each and every actor is up to the task.

Among them, John Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a part-time security guard who finds himself both a witness to and a scapegoat for the events at the Algiers, while Anthony Mackie plays a Vietnam veteran caught up in the chaos. However, it's the movie's not-so-famous faces — namely, Algee Smith as Larry Reed, the lead singer of a band who end up at the motel after their Motown debut is derailed by rioting, and Will Poulter as patrolman Philip Krauss, the bigoted police officer who serves as the focal point for audience disdain — whose roles are most indelible.

Through a series of vignettes spliced together with real-life, archival footage, Detroit separately introduces these characters, but over the course of the movie's slow-burning first act, it sets them on a devastating and tragic collision course that reaches a boiling point during the heated scenes at the Algiers. By the film's poignant conclusion, which takes a somewhat jarring turn into courtroom drama territory, their stories have been woven together into a bloody patchwork that will forever scar a nation, and their fates become inextricably linked.

The result is a powerful reminder of just how far we haven't come in the last half-century. The sins of the past have not been atoned for, nor have they been forgiven, and time and time again we're assaulted with fresh atrocities that rub salt in old wounds. The specter of the past looms large in Detroit, but unlike Bigelow's previous films, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, the shock isn't rooted in recent tragedies. Instead, the tragedy is that we as a society choose not to learn from our most egregious mistakes, but doom ourselves to repeat them.

Detroit releases August 4th, 2017 from Entertainment One. The film has an MPAA rating of R for strong violence and pervasive language. Its runtime is 2 Hrs. 23 Mins.

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