Written by: Mark Boal
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell
Even with horror films bringing the supernatural to present scares, the actions of fellow humans remain the most frightening thing we could ever experience. Detroit takes us through the experience of an unfortunate night where horrifying events occurred and a larger indictment of the justice system in this nation.
During the riots taking place in 1967 Detroit, a group of individuals converges at the Algier Motel. After some fun games, the shooting of a blank pistol makes a group of officers and national guardsmen respond to interrogate the patrons believing it could be a sniper attack. As these brutal interrogations continue, the situation gets more dangerous for the patroons, as the officers continue to cross ethical lines.
While in this review, I will discuss the effectiveness of this film and how it presents the story, I do want to acknowledge the valid criticisms levied against it. With this story being told through a white perspective, the Black pain experienced within it tends to fall into overindulgence. All of these feelings are warranted for anyone to feel, but from my perspective, it all comes together to tell a story looking to aggravate the audience. In that respect, it certainly succeeds unless you’re a corrupt cop, of course.
What occurred in the Algiers Motel cannot be described as anything other than a tragedy. A complete misunderstanding to begin and then a gross misuse of power along with cowardice for the rest of it. The events we see shows the perspectives of several parties, and it will make you sway from abject anger to sadness for the victims. We have an aspiring R&B group, two girls looking to have a good time, a Vietnam war vet, a trio of police officers, a private security guard, and a collection of national guardsmen. All of them under one roof, with tensions high, creates an uncomfortable atmosphere where things can explode at the slightest misunderstanding.
As the interrogations continue with the different folks, it becomes difficult for these officers to maintain a reason as to why they keep these people against their will. This does not stop them from the horrendous racially charged actions occurring. It speaks about the abuse of police upon marginalized identities even if they have done nothing wrong. As the audience, we know the innocence of these people from the very beginning, but criminalizing these people becomes the only recourse these racist cops have left even with no evidence justifying their presence.
By far, the most interesting character to follow is the private security guard, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). His job becomes to solely protect a store from looting with the protests going on in the city. He attempts to ingratiate himself with the officers to establish himself as not a threat as a Black man, but also for some potential backup in case things get bad at his store. With him getting dragged into the mess occurring at the Algiers Motel, his presence represents a struggle of a man battling with his job and trying to stop an injustice. He sees fellow Black folks getting hurt, but his position does not come with the power to fully stop the acts without the cops turning on him as well. John Boyega captures this complicated character trying to balance saving others with not creating any danger for himself. It becomes about the clash between self-preservation and justice with him having limited power to change anything.
We can certainly have a discussion as to whether or not Kathryn Bigelow was the right person to direct this feature, but it’s unquestionable that she used a masterful level of precision in putting this film together. Everything feels lean and to the point. The players get set, we get enough backstory, and then the characters all converge at the motel. The way she films the claustrophobic spaces in the hotel creates such an uncomfortable environment, especially with the heat. There’s so much sweat and fear that you can only imagine how bad it smells in those tight spaces. The brutal nature of how the officers treat the patrons shows absolutely no mercy as Bigelow sets out to create one of the scariest situations a person of color can find themselves in.
As aggravating and saddening as any movie has movie has made me feel in a while, Detroit achieves its desired effect. It takes us into a space where injustice occurred and we get to experience the atrocities that happened to the people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Difficult to watch, but still incredibly effective in its storytelling, this shows a story we have unfortunately seen on multiple occasions with police officers and Black men where pain gets inflicted and justice fails to get served.