Review: As timely and important than ever, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit makes an unsettling yet poignant film about racism-induced Afro-American uprising in Detroit circa 1967. While Bigelow presents downtown Detroit riot in Hurt Locker fashion where smoke soaring high and dusty ruins are practically adorning every corner of the city, it’s not the carnage which is highlighted; but, the root of it all: white’s oppression.
Combining real footage with sharp recreations of the event, Detroit immediately plunges into the warzone, displaying the horror and volatile circumstances. Without warning and proper exposition, pivotal characters—including racist cops, undervalued security guard, white girls among black, black ‘Nam veteran & black musicians—are introduced and lured into the climactic standoff patiently; while audiences are expected to draw the thread between them. Circumstances, characters and the film’s message culminate in robust one-location havoc in a place called Motel Algiers.
Bigelow, again working on Mark Boal’s (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) script, has leaned her tendency as she portrayed each pivotal character. Will Poulter’s cold-blooded cop character is often portrayed as a manipulative force who often puts forward personal sentiment over duty. His character is the fuel and the trigger as well as the reason why such story happened. As his detachment is called out into Motel Algiers, where mysterious shooter allegedly fires, the cop crosses fate with Algee Smith’s musician character who takes shelter from the riot, Anthony Mackie’s veteran and other people. At the same time, a black security guard portrayed by John Boyega is also drawn into the proxy. Personal favor enters the investigation which leads into abuse of total 9 people with mortal casualties in the end.
Detroit takes its time to set up its vigorously poignant standoff at the motel, crafting a super disturbing imagery of how authority can easily turn into oppression. Lasting for approximately an hour, the whole motel incident is utterly visceral in portraying unrestraint reality-based abuse for both physical and mental. Bigelow devises several cameras to cover up multiple angles, which bring power and sense of helplessness. The scene is as powerful as it might be and there’s no objection in that. Thanks to Bigelow’s emphasis to the message as reflected in the style which goes hand in hand with the content. In between, Boyega’s portrayal of helplessness and Poulter’s depiction of opportunistic (borderline to nihilistic) sentiment scaffold the film’s message.
Unfortunately, Detroit’s lengthy duration forces the film to provide follow-ups to its climactic moment. Practically, everything gets toned down in aftermath of Motel Algiers siege and never reaches the climax’ emotional height. There’s a bigger irony infused to the aftermath, climaxing in a courtroom scene, which isn’t well-delivered, leaving it as a mere encore than a conclusion.
Again, the message is clear: a straight fist to racial oppression and bigotry, especially the systematic one. Detroit takes audiences into experiencing the darkest day unapologetically, reminds them of what might happen if bigotry is left untouched, and displays the irony of it. The timing couldn’t be more perfect for that. If there’s something to criticize about this, it should be the script’s tendency to lean against objectivity, allowing full dramatization to shape its message to fit the filmmakers’ need.
If not for its intentional subjectivity, Detroit might pose as a more sincere message delivered as an unapologetic reminder of the darkest day. It’s harrowing in every possibly way, though.