Starring: Algee Smith, Jacob Lattimore, Will Poulter, John Boyega, Jack Reynor, Hannah Murray, Ben O'Toole, Anthony Mackie
Rated R for Strong Violence and Pervasive Language
"Detroit" is absolutely riveting. Like "Dunkirk" earlier this year, this movie pulls no punches. It is violent. It is intense. It is utterly ferocious. This movie grabs you and won't let go. Its impact is difficult to shake.
July, 1967. The racial demographics of the U.S. have been changing since World War I, and now are just as divided. White people have moved out to the suburbs while black people stay in the cities. Racial tensions are on the rise, particularly in Detroit. Not least of which is because of a mostly white police force. It's a tinderbox waiting to explode, and the spark is lit when the police bust a party for a Vietnam vet. The city erupts into riots and the National Guard is called in. Meanwhile, five friends, hoping to make it big as Motown stars, find their shot at stardom ruined after the show is cancelled due to the riots (adding insult to injury, it's right as they're about to perform...ouch). They take refuge at a hotel called the Algiers. It looks to be a fun way to ride out the mayhem; drinking at the pool and hoping to score with a couple of girls. One of the men staying there decides to stick it to the cops by firing a starting gun (that can't hurt anyone even at close range) at the National Guard. That's when things descend into violence, where everyone staying at the hotel is brutalized by a trio of trigger happy cops on a power trip, led by the sadistic Krauss (Poulter). By the end of the night, a group of men and women will be traumatized and three innocent men will be dead.
Director Kathryn Bigalow does two things: one, she brings to light a shameful event in our past that few people know about but should, and she presents it as an allusion to current events. It isn't hard to connect the actions of the characters here (especially the police) and the motivations behind the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a wake-up call to people, especially those who seek to undermine the reality by counterclaim that "All Lives Matter." Which is true, but still a way to stick your head in the sand and ignore the real problem. "Detroit" refuses to let that happen.
The film's central event is the hostage situation in the Algiers annex. No matter how you look at it, this is an abuse of power. It's the blustery, "don't fuck with me" mentality taken to murderous extremes. While all three of the officers are complicit in what happened at the hotel, it's Krauss who is the leader. For him, it's a power trip. He wants to put them in line and show how much power he has over them. Yet, he knows all the lingo and how to cover his ass; he knows what he did is wrong but he's unrepentant. Ostensibly, it's about to find the gun that was shooting at officers. But listen to his words and observe his actions. This is a power play. This is the kind of behavior that gives all the good cops a bad reputation. Those who think that this kind of thing doesn't happen anymore are deluding themselves. Don't believe me? Look at Joe Arpaio, the man who boasted about being "America's Toughest Sheriff" and defied a court order to stop racial profiling (in a turn that the filmmakers probably found bitterly ironic, no mention was made of the fact that he forced "inmates" to live in shabby tents in the desert and wear pink underwear).
"Detroit's" weakest portion is the set-up. Bigelow has trouble setting all the pieces up and the film's foundation is shortchanged. Character development is minimal, but that's okay since, like "Dunkirk," this is about the event rather than the people, so such problems that result from this are minimal.
Weaknesses aside, this is filmmaking at its most visceral and brutal. This is one of the year's best and most important films.