Intense. Infuriating. Immediate. Kathryn Bigelow‘s powerful, often-heartbreaking historical drama Detroit is all of these things and more. Set amid the chaos, violence, and anger of the riots that dominated Motor City during the summer of 1967, the film’s narrative focuses on the police brutality that took place at the Algiers Motel on July 25 and 26 of that year, and the justice system’s subsequent whitewashing of that heinous event.
Tensions are already running extremely high in the city — exacerbated by looting, arrests, attacks, fires, property destruction, unjustifiable police shootings and more — when a young black man jokingly fires a toy pistol out of a window of the Algiers Motel, in the heart of a neighborhood that’s basically under siege. The jumpy white police officers and national guard troops stationed nearby think they’re being shot at by a sniper, and all hell breaks loose.
Led by a bigoted cop named Krauss (Will Poulter), who evidently consider his badge a license to kill, law enforcement officers swarm the motel and round up all the guests — several young black men and two young white women who’ve taken up residence there to dodge the violence on the streets.
What follows in the movie is based on first-hand accounts of those who were present at the Hotel Algiers that night. The scenario is a mix of brutality, intimidation, tension, and racism that is harrowing to watch and will leave your heart pounding, your emotions spent.
Several hotel guests are murdered in cold blood.. Others are beaten and bullied; virtually all are terrified that they will be killed. Some peacekeepers have the presence of mind to try to diffuse the situation — including black security guard Dismukes (John Boyega) — but ultimately no one can stop the carnage before it runs its course.
The fall-out of the terror that took place at the Algiers is a maddening, devastating matter of public record. Suffice it to say that justice was NOT served.
Some commentators and moviegoers may be tempted to regard Detroit as writer/director Kathryn Bigelow and co-writer Mark Boal’s history lesson about a moment in history that’s sad but, thankfully, now behind us. Those who interpret the film in this way couldn’t be more wrong. A huge part of the film’s power and impact is that it is so very relevant to our current political climate and extremely challenging contemporary social issues.
Kathryn Bigelow is no stranger to tension-laden stories, and she deserves tremendous credit for delivering Detroit in a way that provokes thoughtful and constructive consideration and debate. Credit, too, is due to her entire ensemble whose excellent performances – ranging from Boyega’s conflicted Dismukes to Poulter’s evil Krauss. and those of Algee Smith as an aspiring singer whose life is changed forever after the Algiers and of Hannah Murray as fJulie, the feisty, open-minded young woman who dares to talk back to the racist cops.
The astute direction, well-researched script, gritty cinematography, and convincing performances come together to make Detroit a truly essential film. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW Comments:
Cynthia Fuchs: Detroit‘s focus on the 11 hours at the Algiers doesn’t expose racism as deviance as much as it displays its patterns. Like the other two movies in Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s war film trilogy, Detroit lurches occasionally, from journalism to sensationalism, from personal experiences to cultural critique. Less invested in any particular character than The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, the new film poses a compelling challenge to that framework as a way to interrogate systems. Its focus on racism, the driving force of this war (as it is of most wars) presents it as a pathology and a system, alive in a past that is hardly over. Read full review.
Pam Grady: In the summer of 1967, while the West Coast grooved to the Summer of Love, Detroit burned in five days of rioting that pitted the African American community against the arrayed forces of the Detroit police department, Michigan state police, and the National Guard. In her most potent film to date, Kathryn Bigelow reteams with screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) to stunningly recreate that time. Read full review.
Anne Brodie: Kathryn Bigelow’s career reminds me of that of Ida Lupino – two powerful women who were “entrusted” with making films often set in “a man’s world”. Bigelow takes us to distant battlefields, Cold Wars, hot zones and the streets of Detroit as they burned in the race riots of 1967. Lupino’s films as a director were set in courtrooms, waterfronts, the wild, lawless West and other places usually off-limits to women of their respective generations. Bigelow’s Detroit tells the shameful story of one night of police brutality and psychological torture of a group of young black man simply having a party in a hotel room. Bigelow’s realistic, no-holds barred drama captures the longest, bad night in the history of US civilian abuse by corrupt law enforcement and the final legal insult these men suffered. Lupino would have been proud
Jennifer Merin: Kathryn Bigelow is fearless in tacking big issues in her socially-conscious narrative films, and Detroit is no exception. Based on true events that took place at Detroit’s Algiers Motel in 1967, during a period of rioting and looting that had the city on shut down, the film pulls back the curtain on the virulent police racism and rampant brutality that took the lives of three innocent black men, and abused other victims, including two white women who were keeping company with black men at the motel. The film is harrowing, especially because we are so well aware that the racist persecution, brutality and discrimination against innocent people persists today. It’s to Bigelow’s credit that the film has rough edges. They give Detroit a documentary feel that makes the film all the more impactful. It is a must see!
Cate Marquis: Bigelow paints a brilliant, electrifying portrait of the violence in Detroit in 1967, using a combination of archival footage and beautifully-shot dramatic recreations. The sweeping nature visuals give the feel of a historic epic but then, well into the film, Bigelow narrows her focus to the events at the Algiers Motel annex, brings together several characters seen earlier in the film. This is the part of the film that is most powerful, drenched with tension and horror. Read full review. Read full review.
Nell Minow: I hope the film will not always feel as timely as it does now. If that is true, it will be in part because films like this provide context that helps us understand not only the origins of Black Lives Matter but the lives of the parents and grandparents who were unable or unwilling to tell their own stories. Read full review.
Leba Hertz: An intense and disturbing movie about a time that is still relevant today about race relations in America.
Thelma Adams: Detroit, although it re-teams Bigelow and Boal, lacks the clarity of their previous collaborations. And, yet, the ambitious period drama maintains their power to disturb, and to make one question what it is to be an American. It reminds audiences that racism is corrosive, that when inequality exists so does the potential of oppressed citizens to overturn injustice by burning existing structures down in frustration. Redemption may or may not arrive, but the cost is high if we refuse to heed past mistakes and progress. Read full review.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Release Date: August 4, 2017
Running Time: 143 minutes
Principal Cast: John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Will Poulter
Screenwriter: Mark Boal
Production Company: Annapurna Pictures
Distribution Company: Annapurna Distribution
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Thelma Adams, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Cynthia Fuchs, Pam Grady, Leba Hertz, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf, Dorothy Woodend
Written by Betsy Bozdech, edited by Jennifer Merin