Kathryn Bigelow, known most recently as the director of war films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, depicts a different sort of war in Detroit.
Told in three acts, Detroit covers the 1967 rebellion of Detroit citizens against a racist police force. Following the raid of an illegal club, riots against the Detroit police begin, escalating to the point where Michigan State Police and the National Guard are called into the fold as well.
The three acts of the film are distinct—each isolating and disquieting in their own ways, combined to attempt a bold and ambitious narrative of race relations in irreconcilable turmoil. It aims to echo issues of the present day and succeeds in presenting horrifying historical events, but it loses its way trying to balance the unwieldy story.
The crux of the film finds us at the Algiers Motel, where a small band of law enforcement led by the impassive Krauss (Will Poulter) line up the residents of the motel under the suspicion of a gunman among them. Poulter, his face eternally-plastered with brow-cocked menace, services the horror of this second act well.
The sheer discomfort that this second act has makes it feel like a movie of its own. This is where the claustrophobia of the camera, the tightness of the direction, and the power of the performances are allowed to shine.
The opening of the film has its share of tense drama and suffocating camera work. The depiction of the inciting incident to the riots is a strong scene on its own. But both the first and third acts of the film utilize real-world footage to tell its story, to the film’s detriment.
The third act, in particular, makes the film feel fatiguing. At a lengthy runtime over two hours, the film manages pace well, but the court room sequence that plays out to the obvious end burdens the film.
If the film had focused solely on the Algiers Motel case, then Detroit would have been a terse drama bound to leave you breathless from nauseous tension. Clearly, this incident is what the film would like to focus on. It loses itself in the larger thematic work involving social messages, which occurs mainly in the first and third acts.
These themes involve the action and inaction in the face of deeply problematic power dynamics. They involve history repeating itself in terms of systemic racism. They involve the ease to which chaos can be manipulated.
At times, these themes and the film’s overall tone take the place of character development. Thankfully, the performances in the film make it hard to notice. From smaller roles from Anthony Mackie and Jason Mitchell to the lead roles of Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, and Poulter the film boasts strong acting talent.
Each actor has at least one scene that solidifies their triumph in the film. In an interrogation room, John Boyega shows a fascinating combination of internal and external struggles. Smith gets a few musical moments that are the most powerful moments in the film. And Mackie takes over the scenes he is in with a bitter coolness.
Detroit may lack the poignancy that it is going for, leaning too far into horror to present true social commentary. However, the performances and visual presence of its director keep the film from slacking on pace or cinematics.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)