Dan's Review: "Detroit" sure to spark more debate
John Boyega in Detroit - © 2017 Annapurna Pictures.
Detroit (Annapurna Pictures)
Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language.
Starring 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, Gbenga Akinnabve, Chris Chalk, Jeremy Strong, Laz Alonso, Austin Hébert, Miguel Pimentel, Kris Davis, Samira Wiley, Tyler James Williams, Glenn Fitzgerald.
Written by Mark Boal.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Discussions regarding racial tensions can be a little dicey these days, to say the least. It’s an especially risky discussion when you bring law enforcement into the conversation, with some high-profile controversies making headlines over the past few years. Whatever your thoughts on the subject, the team that produced The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty (Katheryn Bigelow and Mark Boal) are tackling the issue with this weekend’s release of Detroit, a movie based on the deaths of three young African-Americans during the race riots of 1967.
John Boyega plays Melvin, a security guard protecting a grocery store near the riots. One night, he and a National Guard unit hear gunshots coming from the nearby Algiers Motel. Inside several people are attending a party when police and the guardsmen roll up and begin shooting. One young man is killed almost immediately, just as three racist police officers (Will Poulter, Ben O’Toole, Jack Reynor) arrive and round up the rest of the clientele for questioning. Melvin also shows up, hoping to protect the African-Americans while keeping the peace. What follows is a series of beatings, brutal interrogation and terror at the hands of one officer (played by Poulter) who uses fear and intimidation to try and get a confession from one of the motel patrons. One of the people held by police is Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a singer in a rising Motown quintet, and his nephew Aubrey (Nathan Davis, Jr.). Others include two Caucasian women (Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray), an Army veteran (Anthony Mackie) and two other partiers named Fred (Jacob Lattimore), Lee (Peyton “Alex” Smith), Michael, (Malcolm David Kelley) and Carl (Jason Mitchell). As the officers’ interrogation produces no weapon or confessions, tempers run high until two more of the young men are dead, leaving a lot of unanswered questions. The three officers and Melvin are eventually charged with murder, resulting in a nasty trial. The nuances of the justice system in civil rights era play out as one would imagine, leaving the survivors and their loved ones to pick up the pieces.
Detroit is an intense, disturbing and well-made film with several outstanding performances, especially from John Boyega, Algee Smith and Will Poulter, who plays the meanest and nastiest racist you can imagine. While Poulter’s performance is noteworthy, his characterization in enhanced by his odd appearance, which creates an even more menacing persona. It may be a little over-the-top for some, but Poulter’s portrayal certainly reflects the image of the day, when the overwhelmingly white Detroit Police force was dealing heavily with the black community.
Bigelow’s direction and Boal’s story structure don’t linger on character development or background, focusing instead on a more documentary-styled film, meticulously covering the nuts and bolts of crime story, rather than delving deeper into the cultural struggle of the day. I have to believe this angle was deliberate, allowing the story itself to be the commentary about racial justice, rather than spelling out the obvious.
I’m not sure if Detroit will spur constructive debate about racial issues and law enforcement - or stir up more anger and resentment over law enforcement and racial injustice. I have hope that things have improved since 1967, but you wouldn’t know it from watching recent local and national media that concentrate on such issues at length. While current data may suggest that conditions have improved, I suppose it’s always a good idea to remember how bad things can be – as they were in Detroit in the late 1960s.