Detroit Review: Tense and Timely, Bigelow Once Again Succeeds

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You don’t have to be familiar with the true events that inspired Detroit to know the ending. Cases like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and countless others from all too recent history already told us the ending. But what makes a film like this essential? Following up the journalistic storytelling style of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal take a step back from the rich yet subtle character development to instead approach a single event and it’s aftermath with an unwavering commitment to truth and message. For this, Detroit unintentionally serves as a mirror image to Christopher Nolan’s currently playing Dunkirk, trading spectacle for intimate tension, and heroism for stark reality. Both films feature a wide breadth of characters dealing with a highly dangerous historic event from different perspectives, but their makers have very different intentions. Where Nolan aimed to make us cheer for survival, Bigelow wants to make us angry that life and death was even in the cards.

The first act is mostly used to set up the mood in Detroit in 1967 during the riots, introducing us to characters who eventually come together for the Algiers Motel incident. There’s Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega, proving capable of more challenging work than Star Wars), a black cop taking it upon himself to moderate a conflict incapable of moderation between Detroit’s black population and the city’s notoriously aggressive police department one skirmish at a time. The latter is chiefly showcased here by officers Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O’Toole), and Demons (Jack Reynor), three figures defined by their blunt racism to the point where the script feels like it’s pushing a little hard—until you remember this all actually happened. And among the people it happened to, the script mainly focuses on Larry Reed (Aglee Smith), the singer of a Motown group, and Greene (Anthony Mackie), a retired vet.

Much like in Dunkirk, none of these characters are really developed in a manner in which we’re supposed to feel for them specifically; the film more relies on audience empathy and compassion that human beings are even in this difficult, terrible situation with no apparent way out to extract emotion. It mostly works, thanks to Bigelow’s journalistic style of filmmaking, allowing this event to be captured in this harrowing, unsettlingly grounded manner.

And yet, I struggle slightly to find where this film fits in the pantheon of films trying to make a difference right now. Detroit seems catered to those who are already aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement. The film’s villains border on being cartoonishly racist, to the point where any shroud of humanity is erased, which gives the film an aggressively political feel. There are even a few lines of dialogue given to the victims that fall a little too closely to common contemporary phrases used against racism today. No one looks into the camera and says “black lives matter,” but it’s not that far off. Just to be clear, all of this is fine for what Detroit is trying to be. It’ll get those angry—myself included—that much angrier. It’s just hard not to wish that Bigelow and Boal had ambitions of unifying audiences. But as it stands, the film is so pointed at its liberal audience that it may have the unintentional effect of automatically turning off anyone who hasn’t educated themselves in the disregard for human life found on the other side of the argument. Detroit didn’t have to be a movie that turns racists to the light side, but it could have been one that appealed to the sensibilities of those who choose to be blissfully unaware in times like these a bit more. So yes, while the film is undeniably essential to our times, it could have been a flag that helped raise a movement, not just a face in the crowd. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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