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  • Writer's pictureBen Pivoz


Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Dismukes (John Boyega) tries to help the inhabitants of the Algiers Motel survive the night in Detroit (Distributed by Annapurna Pictures)

Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s intense, based on true events, drama that takes place during the 1967 Detroit riots, is part thriller and part social commentary. It is a film that has something to say about the relationship between a community and its police, racism, power and fear. At times it can be very powerful (and difficult to watch). At other times, it is too broad in its characterizations. It also drags quite a bit in its final act. However, the centerpiece of the film, a tense confrontation between police and the mostly black inhabitants of the Algiers Motel (which takes up around half of Detroit’s 135 minute running time (not counting the end credits)), is strong enough to make up for the film’s flaws.

The opening sequence shows the beginning of the riots and establishes the mood of the city at that time. At this point, the screenplay (by Mark Boal, an Oscar winner in 2010 for best original screenplay for Bigelow's Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker) introduces several characters who will be important later on in the story. The most significant are Krauss (Will Poulter from 2015’s The Revenant), a racist police officer who uses the power of his position to treat every black citizen like a criminal, Dismukes (John Boyega of the new Star Wars trilogy), a security guard just trying to keep the peace, and Larry and Fred (Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore who starred in this year’s Sleight) a member of an up-and-coming music group and his friend who end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. These characters (and really all of them) are not given a lot of depth, but the actors add enough detail to ensure that their story still has an impact.

Krauss (Will Poulter) intimidates one of the Algiers residents (Anthony Mackie)

Those characters and more all end up at the Algiers Motel in Detroit a few days into the riots. That incident, which begins with an angry black resident (Jason Mitchell) firing a starter’s pistol to scare some police officers and ends with three black men dead and more wounded, is a true story that has been somewhat embellished for the screen. The complete story of what went on that day has not been told, so Boal pieces together the parts of the story that are known and dramatizes the rest. The result is quite effective. Bigelow paces these scenes like a thriller which could be seen as problematic considering the film’s touchy subject matter. This is a very sensitive topic and the concern, as with any film based on a true story, is that making it more cinematic could diminish the significance and lasting impact of the real people or events. But for me, the action never overwhelmed the story that was being told.

The opening does a good job of setting the mood for the rest of the film, but the closing scenes, which deal with the aftermath of the Algiers incident, go on for far too long. It seems as though the filmmakers thought we needed to see the effect the incident had on all the major characters but, by that point in the film, I was exhausted from the powerful scenes at the motel and ready for the film to wrap up. The individual characters weren’t established well enough to make that much detail necessary. With that being said, despite the amount of time they take up, those scenes still feel rushed. It is like the Algiers incident is supposed to represent not only the riots, but also ongoing issues between black citizens and white police officers. There is enough material there to fill up its own movie and it feels squeezed into this one.

Despite its weaknesses, Detroit is one of the more noteworthy movies of this year. It shows an important moment in our country’s history (one that feels very relevant today) and tries to add something of interest to the current conversation about race in America. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it doesn’t. But it is definitely worth seeing.

4 out of 5


John Boyega as Dismukes

Will Poulter as Krauss

Algee Smith as Larry

Jacob Latimore as Fred

Jack Reynor as Demens

Hannah Murray as Julie

Kaitlyn Dever as Karen

Anthony Mackie as Greene

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Written by Mark Boal


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