Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writers: Mark Boal
Composer: James Newton Howard
Genre: Crime, Drama, History
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinkski, Anthony Mackie
When I found out that Kathryn Bigelow was directing a movie about the Detroit race riots, I was thrilled. Once I saw the trailers I was reserved, but still excited. On the day of viewing, I was filled with anticipatory enthusiasm. After its first 30 minutes, I was disappointed. Over the next hour, I couldn’t look away from the screen. During the last 30 minutes, I was sad. As the first credit finally rolled across the screen, I sat there and thought to myself, “How the heck am I going to review this movie?” And yet, here I am. My overall experience is mixed. This isn’t because it’s a poorly- made or lazily-acted movie; I just don’t know what Bigelow wanted me to take from it. So, without any further ado, here is my attempt at a review of the movie Detroit.
Violence/Scary Images: Realistic riot violence is shown throughout the movie. We see many instances of people getting hit with fists, night sticks, butts of guns, and other objects. We see several characters get shot with bloody results. We see a character dead and lying in a pool of blood. We see several characters with bruises and cuts from being beaten.
Language/Crude Humor: Many uses of the F-word and its variant. Uses of a**, s***, d***, and b**** are also used frequently along with several uses of the N-word.
Drug/Alcohol Reference: We constantly see characters smoking throughout the movie.
Spiritual Content: At one point, several characters begin praying while some begin singing hymns. One character becomes director of a church choir at the end of the movie.
Sexual Content: Two women are referred to as prostitutes several times throughout the movie. These said women are seen wearing revealing outfits. We see two characters kiss. A female has her dress ripped off in a non-sexual way and her breasts are briefly visible.
Other Negative Content: Racism and violence are big themes in this movie. We are introduced to some truly terrible characters who’s motives are beyond reprehensible.
Positive Content: While there are a fair share of bad apples, we do see many characters who are kind and do the right thing when no one else does.
Let me start off with focusing on the things I can assuredly say I loved about the movie. From a film making stand point, there’s almost no comparison. Bigelow has been in the game for 20+ years with huge hits like Point Break and The Hurt Locker. She has an instinctive ability to effectively build to and produce incredible scenes of tension. The entire middle chunk of the movie is one nerve inducing moment after the other. Partially to thank for the effectiveness in these scenes is the incredible sound design. Every gunshot made my chair rattle while every punch landed boomed through the speakers.
Combined with the incredible shot was standout camerawork. The camera stays away from the sprawling city shots you’d see in a Michael Bay or Michael Mann film and instead uses close-ups of the actors on screen. This puts the audience right up close with some of the atrocities being done and allows for time to study the reactions emoting from them. The overall feel of the movie is shot in a way in which I am not familiar. It had a news report feel, but of the highest quality. It didn’t feel like many blockbusters feel with wide shots, quick cuts, and slow pans. It felt minimalist and natural. I felt like I was right there with the camera man following all of the action on screen.
The other cornerstone on which this movie was built was the acting. Boasting some recent big hitters like John Boyega and Anthony Mackie, to a loveable TV vet John Krasinski, and the underrated Will Poulter. Each character is very well-defined in the short moments we spend with them individually. From these brief introductions, it’s astounding to watch the transformations that take place for each character. We see how each minor action eventually leads to character changing effects by the end of the movie; none more so than Larry played by newcomer Algee Smith. Beyond having an incredible singing voice, Smith creates the standout character of the movie. He begins so full of hope and naivety only to have it all stripped away by what happened at the Algiers Motel. By the end of the movie, we see a very different version of the character than the one we began with. His story is the most heartbreaking of the movie and reminds me that its the wounds that we don’t see that are the hardest to heal.
If my feelings were just based on the acting, camerawork, and overall quality of the film, I’d be more certain of how I felt. The overall message and themes of the movie are where I become very mixed. The movie takes place during the 1967 Detroit riot. Much of the film focuses in on one particular event during the riot: The Algiers Motel incident. The incident left three young African American males’ dead, three police officers and one security guard with murder charges, and nine other individuals humiliated, beaten, and bruised.
These are the facts of what happened on the evening of July 25th, 1967. No one is disputing that the officers and other uniformed personnel involved committed atrocities on that night. Things were done that sprang from racist hearts and lives were broken in the name of what some perceived as “justice.” When it comes to the deaths though, we will never truly know what happened in those terrifying moments. One death has gone unsolved as no one’s story was able to corroborate with the others while the other two deaths were because of “self-defense” or so the officers claim. Statements were made and recanted and it all did seem a bit fishy, but at the end of the day the only people who knew what really happened, were those that were there.
On the topic of these deaths, Bigelow takes some liberties with what happened that night. According to the film, two of the murders were not justified by self-defense in any way and the other was the product of some strange misunderstanding. She is clearly taking a stand by showing white police officers murdering young black males. It’s no secret that she was using this to parallel the current racial unrest that we are experiencing. I’m not going to state my personal opinions regarding the incident because I watched the movie through a biased lens, but I will say that I don’t fully understand some of the liberties she took with the material. From a story and emotional point of view, I see what she was going for, but once I dug further into the story, her own personal interpretation and conviction seemed more important to her than the true message.
Racism is bad. Violence is bad. No sane person is disputing that. From a Christian’s perspective though, it’s so much deeper than that. Man didn’t suddenly come upon someone who looked different than them and hate them. He didn’t feel unjustifiable anger towards someone of a different color by chance. Cain didn’t kill Abel because he learned how to hate. We are born that way. We are born into sin and born depraved, born with the ability to hate and kill with no help from anyone else. People always sarcastically ask, “Why can’t we all just get along?” And why can’t we? It seems so simple. Most people are normal reasonable folks who just want to go about their everyday lives in peace. But sin has a stranglehold on this world so here we are.
I know the message that Bigelow wanted to get across and for the most part I agree with it. I just don’t always agree with the way she went about it. I’m glad that this movie was made and I’m glad it was made when it was. It’s a hard movie to watch and leaves you with a sense of defeat; having said that, as a Christian, I have hope. As bad as this world is, I know that there is hope in Jesus. And that one day, all will be renewed and movies like Detroit won’t need to exist.
+ Great directing and camerawork + Strong acting and script
- Some poor choices in the execution of the story - Very dour and difficult to watch
The Bottom Line
Kathryn Bigelow has crafted a poignant and powerful look back into an America that is not that much different from our own.