OnScreen Review: 'Detroit'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Kathryn Bigelow has established herself in Hollywood as an upper echelon director in Hollywood when it comes to telling dramatic stories in the middle of a warzone. The Hurt Locker earned her two Oscars, one for Best Picture and one for Best Director, and Zero Dark Thirty is completely captivating and pulls me in every time I stumble across it on cable. It might be a little lazy to say that she is bringing the skills she honed working on war dramas to a film about the 12th Street Riot in the 1967 Detroit, but the parallels are hard to miss. Detroit is a dramatization of a real life event that occurred 50 years ago, yet it clearly still has ties to what we see happening in America today.

A police breakup of an unlicensed nightclub attracts unwanted attention from a gathering crowd and eventually escalates into a riot, with stores burning, looting, protests in the streets, and the National Guard being called in. In the midst of this, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), a cop, shoots a fleeing looter in the back twice. The lead singer of an aspiring Motown group called The Dramatics, Larry (Algee Smith), and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) play it safe and hole up at the Algiers Motel in an annex building on their way home from an abruptly cancelled performance rather than risk the streets. Near the motel, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) works as a security guard protecting a local business. He attempts to be proactive in ingratiating himself with the National Guard when they roll through. Back at the Algiers, Larry and Fred talk up two young white girls who introduce them to some other people. Later, one of these men pulls a starter pistol out and shoots it off to spook the National Guard a few blocks away. Police and Guardsmen descend upon the Algiers, including Krauss and two of his partners patrolling the streets. Convinced that there is an actual gun that was fired being somewhere in the building, Krauss and his two patrol partners play a sadistic game with the people they find in the Algiers Motel annex, hoping to get what they think is the truth, as things quickly spiral out of control.

The film starts essentially with three threads that weave together at the Algiers Motel. All three threads provide important insights into the characters. Seeing the cops chase down a man, shoot him twice as he is running and hearing their conversations about the rioting provides context for their mindsets. What really gave me pause was when Poulter’s Krauss is sent back out into active duty with the possibility of murder charges looming over his head.  This is not a perfect analogy, but from that point on he is like a poker player on tilt, where one instance is affecting everything going forward for him. With Boyega, his character is the black man in a uniform trying to keep a cool head and mediate both sides to keep a bad situation from going to worse. His character gets called an Uncle Tom by a looter he helps save from a police beating. He is an idealist, trying to help in any way possible in a non-ideal world, and he ends up in an incredibly difficult situation for it, despite his overall innocence. It’s a hard reality check. For the people staying at the Algiers, most of them are innocent. It’s incredibly stupid of the one man to provoke the incident by firing a starter pistol, but the resulting abuse of power and gross display of bigotry and both physical and mental cruelty perpetrated far exceeds the indiscretion.

Bigelow, as was the case in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, does not hold back in her recreation of this event. She shows the unnecessary escalation from protesting to rioting to looting (why anyone would steal from a local store or fire to another local business and then throw rocks and bottles at the firefighters trying to save the buildings in the community is beyond me). And when the police response is deemed not enough, the National Guard needs to be brought in. Everything is pure escalation. She effectively put the audience in the headspace where there is little semblance of civility and things are slowly spiraling out of control.

The film is populated mostly by three kinds of people. First, there are people who are outraged by what they are seeing. The black community witnessing black people loaded up en masse into vans which precipitates everything. The people on the police force who are critical of officers like Krauss for not following procedure when pursuing a looter.  There are those who are opportunists, looking to exploit the situation to break a store window and get stuff for free on one side and police officers who see an opportunity to get their aggression and bigotry out. Lastly, there are a few people who are trying to do the right thing. Congressional representatives of the district trying maintain a civil, peaceful tone rather than seeing them burn down their own community. Boyega’s Dismukes is another such figure. Some of the National Guard who lead people away to safety or the cops who help save a man’s life after he escapes from the building in maybe the most emotionally touching moment of the film.

What stands out most about the film, though, is that there seem to be too few people trying to do the right thing who are in a position to make a difference. I was reminded of the quote from Edmund Burke which states, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Too many people, good people, are willing to look the other way, which leads to this incident at the Algiers Motel. At one point, the state troopers show up, they assess the situation, and decide to steer clear of it because it has “bad situation” written all over it. When Krauss and his buddies begin to beat up people in custody, one of the National Guardsmen pulls him aside and tells him that they have to take full responsibility for what is happening and that the National Guards is only there in an observational capacity. It’s a passing of the buck and a C.Y.A. moment. All of this leads to gross abuse of power by people who are supposed to be enforcers of civic trust and security.


The film flags about two thirds of the way through as the story moves beyond the actual events and into the aftermath, culminating with a trial that saps some of the films energy. It’s a difficult third act, because it’s not exactly something a film can “yada, yada…” but it’s also a significant downshift from the heightened tension of everything that preceded it. The film goes slightly past the all-too-familiar outcome of the trial, and grapples briefly with what to do when justice is not to be found, ending with a hopeful moment, where a character turns that mess over to God in the form of a soul-stirring gospel hymn.

That a film like this about events that happened 50 years ago is so relevant and illuminating to today’s news is saddening. It would still be a tough watch, but slightly less sobering if it was something truly in the past. One of the important benefits of history is being able to look back on things with perspective and a level of detachment and reflection. But America is still grappling with these issues and circumstances today. It’s easy to look at the people we see on the news today in an emotionally charged or opinionated way. One of the important benefits of history is being able to look back on things with perspective and a level of detachment and reflection. It’s more difficult to find that perspective when so much, too much of it is similar to the present day. But there is a lesson to be learned from the parallels to today and asking why we have not made progress in certain areas as a country in during those 50 years.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars