Published Aug 04, 2017Academy Award-winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow has spent a chunk of her career exploring power, the abuse of it and the American institutions known for it. Now, after a pair of films exploring its effect overseas (2008's Oscar Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker and 2012 nominee Zero Dark Thirty), she's turning her focus back home with Detroit, a dark and depressing drama that will have your heart pounding throughout and your blood boiling by film's end.
Set during the 1967 Detroit Riots, the film quickly explores how years of poverty and institutional racism made the Motor City a warzone. Then, Bigelow's latest sets its sights on the Algiers Motel and an incident involving the death of three black teenagers, and the abuse of nine other civilians (the majority of whom were also black), at the hands of the Detroit Police Department, who arrived on the scene after a National Guardsmen reported hearing shots fired in the area.
If it sounds strangely familiar, that's because it is. Inspired by the protests in Ferguson, MO and the unlawful and wrongful deaths of countless black citizens in recent years, screenwriter Mark Boal decided to dig deep into America's history of police brutality and oppression. What he found were stories from 50 years ago that are still cropping up on the nightly news today.
Bigelow, a former fine artist and filmmaker known for her frantic camera work, does a great job depicting the days leading up to the event with impressionistic swoops and zooms, filmed immaculately in low light and soft focus by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, that capture the full action of the riots (while still leaving the full story just out of the frame).
But the movie only gets into the full swing of things once the Algiers Motel's inhabitants — played with aplomb by Algee Smith (a singer with dreams of stardom), Jason Mitchell (the man who accidentally led officers to the building by firing a starter pistol), Hurt Locker star Anthony Mackie (as a former marine looking for work and a new life) and Skins star Hannah Murray (playing one of two women who survived the incident), amongst others — are introduced, with the majority of the film's conflict taking place in a single hallway, stairwell and a few bedrooms from there. It's a claustrophobic event that's made even more paralyzing to watch thanks to a powerful performance from Will Poulter (playing a racist police officer who ends up doing the bulk of the terrorizing) and his two sidekicks (played by Jack Reynor and Ben O'Toole).
Boal, a former journalist, does a good job piecing the puzzle together (he recently told Variety, "the truth [of what happened] is known… what's lost to history is who exactly pulled which trigger and why, and to some degree when"), and his attention to detail is astounding. But because of that focus, the dialogue takes a hit on occasion, especially, and somewhat surprisingly, in what should be its more emotionally resonating scenes. ("Doesn't he know they have civil rights?" one higher-up says, or some variation of, after getting wind of what's going on in one of the film's hammier moments.)
Still, Detroit is a fiery history lesson that shouldn't be forgotten, and certainly one of this summer's more memorable movies.