Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film “Detroit” is a visceral but unfocused work which made me feel rather ambivalent about it after my viewing. While it is as vivid and tense as required during many of its key moments, it does not succeed well in presenting its big picture of infuriating social injustice and devastating human tragedy, and I must confess that I was often confused as wondering whether its rather sprawling storytelling approach really works as well as intended.
After the prologue animation sequence which gives us the basic background information on Detroit, Michigan and its racial inequality during the 1960s, the movie puts us right into a situation which led to that infamous riot on July 23rd, 1967. When the Detroit Police Department stage a raid on an unlicensed nightclub in one black neighborhood of Detroit and then arrest a bunch of people who happen to be there at that time, many people in that black neighborhood are quite enraged, and we soon see local shops being attacked and pillaged by angry rioters. As this riot is continued to rock the whole city day by day, not only the State Police but also the State National Guard are brought into the city after the authorization from Governor George W. Romney (yes, he is the father of Mitt Romney), and there even come military paratroopers later as authorized by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
During its first act, the movie introduces us to its three main characters: Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), Larry Reed (Algee Smith), and Philip Krauss (Will Poulter). When he is told to do the night shift at a local grocery store on July 25th, Dismukes, a black private security guard who also works as a factory worker during daytime, surely has reasonable concerns due to the ongoing riot. During his working hours, he shows some goodwill to a group of National Guard soldiers when they happen to be near the grocery store, but then they hear several sudden gunshots from somewhere, and that is how he inadvertently gets himself into a trouble far more serious than expected.
In case of Reed, this black lad and his musician colleagues are about to have their first big moment at a local music hall during the evening of July 25th, but, unfortunately, they are prevented from appearing on the stage in the last minute just because the police demand that the audiences should leave the hall as soon as possible for a security reason. While quite disappointed by this, Reed lets out his frustration to some degrees in the empty music hall, and this is one of a few genuine emotional moments in the film.
And then the evening turns out to be more unfortunate than they thought. Shortly after the bus they ride along with several other citizens is attacked by rioters, Reed and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) find themselves being separated from other members, and they have no choice but to stay at a nearby motel due to the curfew. The motel looks safe and fine, but then we instantly sense a problem when one black guy tries to pull a prank on others with a starter gun, which is harmless but makes a loud noise just like a real gun.
Once that guy shoots several times in the air, not only Detroit Police officers but also National Guard soldiers promptly search for the ‘sniper’, and they all come to converge on the motel. Krauss, a police officer who is also your average hateful racist, arrives at the motel first along with his partner, and they soon round up all the ‘suspects’ in the motel shortly after Krauss shoots down one of them. Quite determined to get the ‘sniper’ by any means necessary, Krauss and his partner are ready to do anything, and other police officers and National Guard soldiers merely stand back from the scene because they do not want to get involved in any serious problem.
The second act of the movie mainly consists of brutal and cruel moments which are surely going to disturb and exasperate you a lot. As Krauss and his partner relentlessly harass and intimidate Larry and others in the motel, Dismukes, who comes into the motel not long after Krauss, tries his best to deal with this circumstance, but he only comes to see how passive and helpless he is. He certainly sees injustice, but he does not want to draw unwanted attention at all, and it is already too late for him when he eventually tries to do the right thing later in the story.
Around its third act which revolves around the aftermath of the incident, the movie attemps to stand back and then observe the incident from a wider viewpoint, but the screenplay by writer/co-producer Mark Boal, who previously collaborated with Bigelow in “The Hurt Locker” (2008) and “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), does not provide enough emotional depth for that. While many of characters in the movie are too flat or broad to hold our attention, the movie also feels superficial at times without much understanding on the social/racial aspects of the riot, and I must tell you that the movie does not show me anything beyond what I can learn from Wikipedia.
The main performers in the movie try to fill their roles as much as they can, and some of them acquit themselves well compared to others. While John Boyega brings some nuanced humanity to his rather bland character, Will Poulter seems to try too hard for his detestable role, and Algee Smith is solid in a role which could be a strong center to hold everything in the story. In case of other notable performers such as Jason Mitchell, Anthony Mackie, Jack Reynor, Jacob Latimore, John Krasinski, and Laz Alonso, they are mostly under-utilized on the whole, and Mitchell, who was wonderful in “Straight Outta Compton” (2015) and “Mudbound” (2017), is particularly wasted here in this film.
Overall, “Detroit” is considerably hampered by several glaring problems including its flawed storytelling and weak characterization, and the result is two or three steps below “The Hurt Locker” and other better works from Bigelow. It is surely as gritty and intense as expected with considerable verisimilitude, but it lacks focus and human dimension to engage us, and that is a shame considering its undeniably timely subject.