MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Crime Drama/ Stars: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie, Joseph David-Jones, Ephraim Sykes, Leon Thomas III, Nathan Davis Jr., Peyton Alex Smith, Malcolm David Kelley/ Runtime: 143 minutes
When it comes to movies that possess a cinematic world that is an important topic of our times yet at the same time upon closer inspection we as audiences find they also deal with emotions or aspects of humanity that we as human beings can all identify with and even be revolted or disgusted but ultimately fixated with look no further than the last 2 films by director Kathryn Bigelow. Indeed with The Hurt Locker we as audiences were dropped into the world of the War in Iraq, but then found ourselves seeing a subtext which involves the thrill of quite possibly dying that some people possess which can prove to be their main driving force as well as the simple yet tragic fact that for some soldiers the battlefield is honestly the only place where they feel they belong. Likewise with Zero Dark Thirty we are dropped into the world that was the hunt for Osama bin Laden yet hidden within the world are detailed observations about obsession and how cathartic it can truly be when something you have obsessing over and trying to make happen or bring about is finally fulfilled.
The reason I bring this up to you dear readers is because once again Miss Bigelow has delivered another such film in the form of Detroit. Indeed here is a movie that takes a real-life incident to deliver some powerful commentary on not only the evil that is systemic racism, but also how it can affect the world around you. Yet even more terrifyingly, the fact that, despite it being 50 years since the riots rolled through the streets of Detroit, nothing really truly has changed in this country. Indeed this kind of rampart racism still does exist to this very day and when you combine this terrifying social commentary with a tense story that sheds a light on one of the worst cases of injustice in this country’s history as well as fantastic performances from an extremely well-chosen cast you find that the end result is an extremely gripping story that makes for absolutely essential viewing even though it is extremely painful and hard to watch in a lot of ways.
The plot is as follows: following an equally as tense prologue bringing you up to speed on the events that helped shape what you are about to see unfold before you the film then plunges you directly into the deep end of the swimming pool that is the simmering and absolutely sweltering summer of 1967 in Detroit. A time and place where we quickly see an all-black after-hours club celebrating the return of a soldier from Vietnam find itself being targeted in what was supposed to be a routine raid. Unfortunately without a viable back exit, the arresting officers find themselves with little choice but to make the stream of party goers go directly from the front door into police vans directly outside. Of course having witnessed the commotion going on a crowd soon gathers and the situation quickly evolves from simple boos and 4-letter words to bottles and stones being thrown just as offhand and casually as the f-words from the peoples’ mouths. Indeed it is in this moment that you quickly see that, like so many other parts of the country which at this time were quite worn down not only by decades of fear and racism, but also by decades of immense hatred on both sides of the racial divide, that the city of Detroit was a powder keg, and that if the right spark was ignited it wasn’t going to take much to see the city plunge into a form of complete and total chaos. So it is during this turbulent time of looting, defiance, the National Guard being just about everywhere you looked, and just the streets and certain parts of Detroit being burned to the ground period that we see a mixture of assorted characters come together one night at the Algiers Motel. These characters include an aspiring singer for an up-and-coming band known as the Dramatics (Algee Smith kind of looking like Will Smith from Pursuit of Happyness), his proud and eager to do right by the people in his life friend (Jacob Latimore), a weary yet proud veteran (Anthony Mackie taking a break from his Avenger duties), and two freewheeling yet sweet white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) as well as a few other guests. Thus having quickly bonded due to the forces of the rising wave of tension in the rest of the city and, of course, alcohol, they all find themselves one minute flirting by the hotel pool and the next minute debating the merits of one John Coltrane. Unfortunately what was supposed to be a relaxing evening for all quickly and horrifically becomes a living nightmare. A nightmare that starts when another guest at the hotel pops off a starter pistol as a prank….a prank which quickly and horrifically provokes a paranoid and extremely cagey response from law enforcement including 3 local officers, 1 of whom is under investigation and pending murder charges for an incident earlier in that day, a squad of National Guard, and a security guard who happened to be in the area that night (John Boyega). Thus what follows from that point on truly is nothing short of a living and truly terrifying nightmare that the people involved would never ever forget…a nightmare which I might add, despite historical records showing us the full extent of what happened (and that which I shall not spoil here for you), is still a matter which is heavily disputed even after several court cases, dozens of articles, and 50+ years of distance on the matter……
Now despite there not being really truly a main character per se due to this being a true ensemble piece with everyone including John Krasinski making an 11th hour appearance as the 3 officers’ sleazy defense attorney getting as much screen time as their characters require, they nevertheless all still prove to make quite the invaluable impressions on us as audience members. Yet despite that I still feel there are a few performances that deserve to be particularly highlighted and put on display. Now the first of these is from Will Poulter and if the only thing you have seen him is the 2013 comedy We’re the Millers as the sweet yet innocent and naïve to a t Kenny, absolutely in equal measures stuns, horrifies, and absolutely revolts as the leader of the trio of police officers who within minutes of arriving on the scene quickly takes charge of the situation at the Algiers. Indeed there is not a single moment where this All-American Howdy Doody mixed with racist monstrosity does not send chills down your spine whenever he is on screen not only because what he does to the innocent people in this movie is extremely gut-wrenching, but also because you realize that this is a character who knows what he is doing is evil in every sense of the word yet because he enjoys it he will never stop even with the threat of pending murder charges as well as having his badge taken up for shooting a terrified looter in the back over a few groceries despite a colleague reminding him that they’ve been explicitly told to let the little fish go. Indeed Poulter just makes this monster his own and it really truly is a performance that should get him some awards notice. Equally as good as Poulter however albeit in what can come across as an ambiguous, and truly thankless role is John Boyega as security guard Melvin Dismukes. Indeed this honestly is as far of a distance as you can go from the role of Finn in the new Star Wars films because here we get a character who’s not only desperately trying to keep the peace in a situation he is thoroughly out of his element in, but who also really doesn’t fit into either side of the conflict that the riots present. This is because although he’s black he’s also a uniform so while one side spits out “boy” and other epithets his way he, in one of the more quietly subdued scenes, also has “Uncle Tom” hurled out at him by a younger black man despite having just saved him from being arrested just because he’s wearing a cop-like uniform. Indeed this is a performance that requires an actor who can act not just with the words on the script, but also with their body language and their facial expressions as well and Boyega just nails this character through and through.
Now I can guarantee you dear reader that it will be practically impossible for you to watch this film without once considering the context that takes the form of recent events involving Michael Brown, Treyvon Martin, George Zimmerman, Eric Casebolt and others. Thus due to that comparison I find that all it disturbingly manages to achieve is nothing more than to make the events portrayed on the screen before you honestly all the more devastating. Plus as a specific, non-fiction-based story, Miss Bigelow’s film not only manages to serve as a important spotlight on an important and with equal measure horrific and tragic moment in U.S. history, but also as an extremely blunt voice that makes the suggestion that despite 50+ years having come and gone since these events took place there are still certain parts of our society that tragically haven’t actually changed as much as they should’ve. Indeed this film really will create an odd sensation in you as a viewer when you view the finished product because although you will come out of the movie feeling like you have just been emotionally beaten to a pulp you also find yourself walking out with a little bit of hope that maybe the emotionally and mentally draining film you just saw could maybe open eyes and inspire hearts in a way that time has sadly failed to be able to do.
All in all if you go into this movie please know that you will feel most likely that you have been repeatedly punched in the gut upon the film’s completion. This is because this is not a feel-good movie, and it never was meant to be. This is a movie that, although it is truly a fantastic piece of cinema with a dynamite and first-rate cast and a truly amazing director leading the charge, showcases a time when Americans as red-blooded as you and me decided to use their badges as shovels and dig a hole and into this hole they buried any sense of logic, or reason. Worst of all however, they buried their conscience and humanity as well and in exchange they let the darker instincts of discrimination and hatred run free and rampant in their hearts and the world around them which resulted in 7 innocent men and women being treated to a night of horror and the worst kinds of injustice imaginable and when they did that they became less than men. Indeed they became the stuff that nightmares are truly made of…. Just some food for thought. Not just for the conclusion of a film review, but for whenever and wherever we as people interact with each other on this little blue and green world. On a scale of 1-5 I give Detroit a solid 4 out of 5.