Movie Review: ‘DETROIT,’ a gripping portrait of America’s past and present

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

DETROIT
Rated R, 146 minutes.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: John BoyegaWill PoulterAlgee Smith,Jacob LatimoreAnthony MackieJason MitchellHannah MurrayKaitlyn DeverJack ReynorBen O’Toole and John Krasinski

Movies tend to have a direct correlation with a current social climate. Sociopolitical aspects not only lend depth to a film’s message, but also helps to elevate an audience’s emotional reaction to the product. Over the past decade (and that’s being generous), there has been a rise of social consciousness, leading to the demand of equality, or in some cases justice. Women, minorities, LGBTQ… these groups are affected every day by a possibility of their rights being revoked in some form. It’s not a matter of position, just a matter of fact.

Which brings us to DETROIT, the latest from Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (THE HURT LOCKER, ZERO DARK THIRTY). Framing today’s climate of untrustworthy officials in positions of power, the film focuses on the Detroit riots of 1967 as a base for the horror that happens upon the Algiers Motel. That particular setting serves as a microcosm of the worst fears of the community, as three African-American men are murdered by authority figures. Hitting a few key points intercut with actual news footage and archived photos, the first act glances over the first few days but does lay a foundation for the central characters.

The film begins as the community reaches its boiling point, watching the police raid a local hangout for not having a liquor license. Because their back door is broken, Detroit PD can’t take them out the back, leading to public humiliation, which leads to rioting. As the city gets destroyed, it points out those that will partake in that fateful night. Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard trying to keep the peace; Larry (Algee Smith), who is about to lead “The Dramatics” to their big Motown break, and his best friend Fred (Jacob Latimore); and the three police officers who will cause everything to occur: Krauss (Will Poulter), Demens (Jack Reynor), and Flynn (Ben O’Toole).

Will Poulter, left, and Anthony Mackie in a scene from ‘DETROIT.’ Courtesy of Annapurna Distribution.

Once the events of the Algiers Motel occur, DETROIT transitions easily into a completely different movie, moving from historical drama to home invasion horror. All remaining patrons of the Algiers are brutalized and terrorized by Krauss and Co. Not that the police and National Guard didn’t have just cause, as someone fired a starter pistol out the window. However, much like today’s day and age, the problem is personal agenda leading to overreach. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal do well to reflect this as much, with not only African-American men, but Caucasian women (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) being at the mercy of the sadistic trio. It’s a clear portrait of the current demographic that feel oppressed by white men in power.

The presentation of the film does its best to transport the audience, using grainy textures and dull palettes. However, the camera movement, in ever-present Steadicam, joins the past with the present. Surprisingly, it is incredibly effective and does not take the viewer out of the moment. Furthermore, the decision to use lesser-known actors makes the tension and era the star, but build a world where the actors can enable themselves rather than force it. Everyone plays their part well, however, Poulter steals the show as the racist, sadistic Krauss. If they didn’t know him before, everyone will know him now (also, his role here really peaks curiosity to see his screen test for Pennywise in Cary Fukunaga’s version of IT).

As invigorated and angry as one feels after leaving DETROIT, hindsight tends to make the viewer realize that there were cases of blatant emotional manipulation. For example, a little girl looks through the window to see the National Guard; a gunner takes notice and illogically fires a 50-cal with no repercussions or effect for the story. Also, because the filmmakers were careful to only present viewer-accounts and testimonies, it leaves a lot to face value. Boyega’s Dismukes clearly wants to make sure everyone gets out, but there is no motivation or basis for his decisions. It could be that Bigelow and Boal didn’t want to assume his motivations coming from a white background, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is still more story to be told.

All in all, DETROIT does serve its purpose to help bring awareness to a broken system, even if it is at times gratuitous. Anchored by great performances and tight filmmaking, it makes for a compelling time at the movies, and a film that will keep the debate going.

Grade: B-

DETROIT is playing in select theaters now; opens wide on Friday (4/4).

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.