Detroit takes a look at one of the most racially charged incidents that took place in the 1960s. In 1967 Detroit, protesters took to the streets after police made a number of arrests when they raided an unlicensed club. Things get worse from there. Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonzo) is among many calling for calmer heads to prevail, but protests grew into looting and other destructive activities. Eventually, the governor calls on the National Guard to aid Detroit police. In spite of orders to not shoot looters, Detroit cop Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) pursues a looter, shooting him twice and mortally wounding him. However, his superiors allow him to remain on active duty as a result of the unrest. The riots also lead to an imposed curfew, as police order a concert to end just before Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and his fellow singers in the Dramatics are set to take the stage. When their tour bus runs into trouble, Larry and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) seek lodging at the nearby Algiers Hotel, where they get the last available room.
In a nearby room, though, teeager Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) fires shots from a starter's pistol. Those shots draw the attention of Krauss and other officers, the National Guard, and Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), an armed security guard working at a nearby grocery store. On arrival, Krauss kills a fleeing, but unarmed, Cooper. He and the police round up the rest of the occupants. They start demanding answers about the gun, and become verbally and physically abusive in the process. Nobody gives Krauss the answers he wants to hear, and eventually separates the others. Dismukes and others look for the pistol without success. When the police start shooting, Dismukes and National Guardsman Roberts (Austin Hebert) start sneaking a few of the residents out of harm's way, but two others die, including Temple and Aubrey Pollard, Jr. (Nathan Davis, Jr.). Later, when the police start to investigate Krauss and the other cops, they get some of the truth. Dismukes also gets arrested, even though he didn't shoot anybody. He, Krauss, and two other officers go to trial for crimes that include murder.
Detroit marks the first feature Kathryn Bigelow has made since she showed the efforts to capture Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. Detroit captures a different type of darkness as short tempers grow even shorter. As has been the case with her previous two features, Bigelow has Mark Boal on board to write the screenplay. Unlike their previous two collaborations, the other of which was the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, Boal and Bigelow don't tell the story with the anger and the outrage the incident deserves. The movie has a lot of characters, but the end credits give almost all of them, including Dismukes, Krauss, and Larry, just one name. Further, Boal only develops the stories of Dismukes, Krauss, and Larry. Everyone else comes across as either a statistic or a stereotype, The film even starts out badly, with an animated sequence showing the conditions leading up to the riots. Bigelow later uses photos from the time to better effect, and I think the opening moments unintentionally trivialize the situations blacks faced in Detroit. The unevenness of story and tone ultimately derail the movie.
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Still, Boyega, Poulter, and Smith give the film some redeeming qualities. Boyega, as Dismukes, shows he can be tough, but he also wants to treat others right. When a few guardsmen patrol by his store, he brings them coffee. Ultimately, he shows what he thinks of Krauss and his extremely biased ways. Poulter, as Krauss, shows an officer who's gone off the rails, not caring for anyone who's not respectful of his badge. His disgust for his detainees, which include two white teenage girls, knows no bounds other than for the lives he does spare. Smith has the most sympathetic performance as Larry, who tries to shield himself and the ill-fated Fred from danger. The incident makes him barely able to function, let alone pursue his dreams of stardom. Anthony Mackie has little time to do anything as Robert Greene, a Vietnam vet who gets caught up in the situation at the Algiers. The same holds for John Krasinski as Auerbach, the defense attorney for the police.
During about a week of rioting and general unrest, over 40 people lost their lives during the tumult in Michigan's biggest city. Some of the depictions, this film admits, are based on conjecture based on available evidence and eyewitnesses. The movie effectively shows a rift between a struggling community and a polce force whose officers don't always serve and protect equally. Detroit is an ambitious movie that tries to juggle many characters, but only succeeds with a small part of its juggling act. That's unfortunate, for the night at the Algiers Hotel and the rioting in general shine a light on an ugly part of American existence. Detroit needed to strike a vital nerve, but failed due to its lack of in-depth approach. Viewers, as a result, get a drama that merely presents without doing right by the people who lived and died there.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Detroit two stars. A small tale about a big city.