MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Detroit’ is essential, if harrowing, cruel viewing

Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit Riot drama is necessary viewing for those uneducated, but could be seen as far too torturous to others

| August 4, 2017 | 0 Comments

“Timely” films have been something of a new trend in Hollywood, if only because of the increasing awareness of social and racial injustices being perpetuated in America. While many racially-charged crimes still happen in America daily, the main focus has been on the relationship between the police force and black communities, particularly in the topic of police brutality. As a white person who never had any reason to fear the police, my ignorance showed quite a bit when the coverage of police violence against black civilians became more mainstream. “How could this happen? How is this allowed?”, I asked myself, meanwhile all of my black friends were waving their hands in front of me, saying “This has been happening forever in the shadows.” This was a major turning point when I realized the power of the press, and what they choose to show their readers and viewers the reality of what happens on our streets to many innocent civilians. “Detroit” is a film that details one of the worst incidents of police brutality in American history, focusing on the incident at the Algiers Motel during the Detroit Riots of 1967. While the film is titled “Detroit,” and does cover the beginning of the Detroit Riots, the film focuses the majority of its gaze on the aforementioned motel incident, finding itself in a much smaller space than what we’ve come to know from director Kathryn Bigelow’s films.

As I was watching “Detroit,” I was thinking how essential that this film is for viewers who might doubt the presence of police brutality against black Americans, but as the film went on, I began to realize that I’m not sure I really want to watch a film about black people being violently tortured by police, but as the film ended, I was shaken by the events I had just seen, and felt more knowledgable for my viewing of it, however cruel it might’ve been.

“Detroit” follows a few stories that converge at the Algiers Motel in Detroit. Focusing on a security guard at a grocery store (John Boyega) caught in the crossfire of events; an up-and-coming Motown singer (Algee Smith) and his “bodyguard” (Jacob Latimore); and a sadistic, racist Detroit police officer (Will Poulter), determined to terrify and harm as many black people as he can during the riots. The film starts off detailing the rise of the Detroit Riots, but settles in on the Algiers Motel incident, in which gunfire from a starter pistol were taken as threats against the police force, leading to the detainment, assault, torture and murder of several innocent black individuals at the hands of Detroit police officers led by Poulter’s Krauss.

From there, the film turns even darker than it did before, focusing in on harrowing scenes of violence and police brutality in a way that’s never been shown on the big screen before, but almost so harrowing that it begins to veer into cruel territory as the incident draws to a close. I don’t need to be shown every single violent detail of torture and violence to know exactly what happened to these people at the hands of these officers. Bigelow has guts going for that sort of cinema, much in the way that she did in “Zero Dark Thirty,” but unlike the aforementioned film, “Detroit” almost turns into a horror film it becomes so unpleasant, and unlike “Zero Dark Thirty,” there isn’t any sort of reprieve from this cruelty. On one hand, I applaud Bigelow for not shying away from showing the horrors of police brutality, but on the other hand, I feel as if a better medium could’ve been struck, rather than making it into police torture porn.

Beyond this somewhat significant drawback, the rest of “Detroit” is quite effective, with beautiful, striking direction from Bigelow that feels quite a bit like a Guerilla-style documentary than anything else. This sense of urgency in her filmmaking style only seeks to match the feeling of the chaos that enused during the riots, with the rare occasion where shaky cam does work in a film’s favor. Bigelow has always had the power to strike the chord and feeling of whatever event she’s covering, and aesthetically, it’s no different here. This is a dark, gritty, unwavering film that has a gritty aesthetic to match.

The performances in “Detroit” are the thing that sells this thing, though, with Smith and Poulter stealing the show. Smith is a heartbreaking, sympathetic character who makes the most of the material he’s given, and is given the chance to really show the power in vulnerability at the hands of an improbable villain. But it’s Poulter who gives the performance of a career as Krauss, a sadistic, sociopathic racist that’s at least 10x scarier than his take on Pennywise the Clown in “It” could’ve ever been. This is a villain for the ages, as so many films nowadays like to add sympathetic backstories or magnetic charm to the villains, Krauss is a true villain without a single redeeming quality about him, and Poulter goes whole-ass into the role. Having seen Poulter in other, lighthearted films, it was shocking and very unnerving to see him take on a character this reprehensible, let alone so well. From his look, to his demeanor, down to the pattern of his speech all are perfect in conveying exactly what Bigelow needed for a villain this completely disgusting and horrifying. Poulter should look out for an Oscar nomination come January, because he deserves it.

If I had one real complaint with “Detroit” outside of its brutality, I could say that a few of the characters don’t really come alive with depth until the very end of the film when more information is learned about them during the trials that succeeded the motel incident. Had screenwriter Mark Boal taken some of the time from the motel incident and placed it in the opening of the film to build more depth and humanity to these characters (except Poulter’s, of course), I feel as if the film wouldn’t have to had been as brutally shell-shocking as it was.

“Detroit” is a film that feels essential in nature, but definitely won’t suit everyone who resent black pain on screen. If anything, “Detroit” might work best for skeptics of police brutality in the modern age, the “All Lives Matter” crowd who like to demonize “Black Lives Matter” activists as terrorists. “Detroit” could even help educate older white people on the history they got to exempt themselves from during the 1960s due to their privilege. I think socially aware and black audiences aren’t going to learn anything about police brutality that they didn’t already know, which might make its brutal and torturous aspects come across as cruel and unnecessary, but thanks to some stunning direction, some amazing performances, and the freedom of being an indie film from a first-time distributor to tell the more unpleasant stories of history, “Detroit” is necessary, if borderline exploitative.

3/5

Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jaosn Mitchell, Jacob Latimore, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, with John Krasinski, and Anthony Mackie.
Runtime: 143 minutes
Rating: R for strong violence and pervasive language.

Annapurna Pictures presents, a Harpers Ferry production, a Page 1 production, a film by Kathryn Bigelow, “Detroit”

Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

Twitter

Comments

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

Twitter