Detroit (2017) Review
Chaotic, Mesmerizing, and Infuriating
Set in Detroit in 1967, riots break out after a police raid triggers the crowd sparking the 12th Street Rebellion. On July 25, the occupants of the Algiers Motel were subjected to torture-like treatment by the Detroit Police Department. Three black men were killed in cold blood while seven black men and two white women were badly beaten for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Detroit is the type of film you recognize for being well made and controversially written with a top notch cast, but it’s difficult to endure. You appreciate the talent involved and are engrossed with what transpires on screen, but it’s an infuriating experience that frustrates you, violently mashes whatever buttons you have that set you off, and purposely wants you to leave the theater with your blood boiling.
Frequent collaborators writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), choose the riots to be the focus of Detroit for the first half of the film but the second half heavily revolves around the Algiers Motel Incident. You see the film from three different perspectives; from a black security guard just trying to do his job and survive the night named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a crooked cop named Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) corrupting his partners along the way, and from up and coming Motown musician Larry Reed (Algee Smith). Each of their stories end up intersecting at the motel and are connected throughout the rest of the picture and the three lead actors are quite exceptional.
John Boyega has been an actor to keep an eye on ever since he starred in the underrated yet fantastic film Attack the Block. Now as one of the stars of the new Star Wars franchise as well as the Pacific Rim sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising, he’s basically a household name. Boyega is extremely grounded in Detroit. He’s only trying to keep the peace as Melvin Dismukes; works overtime after a double shift, offers coffee to the national guard to make them feel somewhat comfortable, and attempts to stand up for the little guy when no one else will. Boyega is a normal guy trying to live day to day, but when things look bad for him he’s just floored complete with glossed over eyes and trembling hands. The kid is a force to be reckoned with
Will Poulter has come a long way since starring in the last Chronicles of Narnia film and more recently Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant. Poulter is dirty, racist, ignorant, and has a mouth on him that gets him into and out of trouble on a regular basis as Philip Krauss. He frames innocent individuals solely because of the color of their skin. He’s the mastermind of what goes down at the Algiers Motel and seems to get a thrill out of shooting people in the back. Krauss is nasty, abusive, and a complete sociopath and is all the more riveting based on Will Poulter’s exasperating performance.
Algee Smith is mostly new to feature films only appearing in the alien adventure Earth to Echo and the Hailee Steinfeld action adventure Barely Lethal. The Larry Reed character arc in Detroit is perhaps the most irritating. With a musical career just looming over the horizon, Larry Reed is changed forever after what he goes through at the Algiers Motel. Smith brings this confidence to the role; smooth behavior and actions for nearly every occasion. His voice is impressive as well and you believe it when people say he’ll eventually have a record deal. The character seems to embrace anger, holding a grudge, and poverty because of what happens over the course of two nights in Michigan in 1967. On one hand, you completely understand but on the other it seems like throwing away a winning lottery ticket because you don’t have big enough pockets. Smith roles with the punches though and perseveres as a talented young man who steals the show even though Larry Reed is never given the proper spotlight.
According to the film, there’s no official record of all the details of what went down at the Algiers Motel Incident so the film pieces things together from witness recollections and police reports. But it also feels like the entire incident could have been shortened and resolved in a slightly more efficient manner if somebody had actually mentioned what brought the police to that location to begin with. Ratting a certain individual out doesn’t seem like something anyone should worry about if that person has perished recently. Multiple characters in the film seem to withhold information like this that would either immediately resolve whatever trouble they find themselves in for no reason other than to rile up the audience.
Some recognizable faces appear in some minor roles in the film. Samira Wiley, who was Poussey Washington on Orange is the New Black, appears briefly as the front desk clerk of the Algiers Motel. Anthony Mackie, known as Falcon in the Captain America films but was also in The Hurt Locker, portrays a wrongly accused and honorably discharged veteran in Detroit. Finally, there’s John Krasinski, Jim Halpert on The Office, pops up as the union attorney Auerbach for the Detroit P.D. It’s interesting to see more familiar faces take a backseat to fresher ones.
Detroit has this 12 Years a Slave quality to it. The film is absolutely compelling from start to finish, but it enrages you and continues to poke and irritate you until you’re in a livid state by the end of the film. There’s this agonizing quality to Detroit that is relentless once it sets in with little hope or resolution occurring along the way. John Boyega, Will Poulter, and Algee Smith are outstanding and the film is pieced together in relatively clever fashion, but it’s the type of well executed film no one will want to watch more than once.
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© 2017 Chris Sawin