Every year or two the Academy Awards tends to give a Best Picture nod to a film released in August (“The Help” and “Hell or High Water” to name two); let’s hope that trend continues.
“Detroit” is based on the Algiers Motel incident during Detroit’s 12th Street Riot in 1967, where a half dozen black men were essentially held hostage by Detroit police after shots were supposedly fired at them. John Boyega stars as a security guard, Will Poulter as the officer in charge of the investigation and Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell and Anthony Mackie portray guests at the motel. Kathryn Bigelow directs a script from her longtime creative partner Mark Boal.
When I first saw Bigelow and Boal were again teaming up following their success with “The Hurt Locker” (one of the greatest films of all-time) and “Zero Dark Thirty” to make a film about the Detroit riots, I was intrigued. I was a little confused (and slightly concerned?) why this Oscar-winning duo would chose to drop such a film in August, and not in the fall during awards season, but the trailers were intense as anything so I was sold. And upon seeing the film I am still perplexed by the late summer release date, because this is a movie that deserves the Academy’s attention across the board come next February.
One of the things Kathryn Bigelow does incredibly well is creating a sense of tension and immersion in her films; she drops you into a setting and doesn’t let you leave. She places you in the bumpy Humvees of Iraq in “Hurt Locker” and the CIA black sites in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Here, she and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (reteaming after “Hurt Locker”) make us a guest of the Algiers Motel in the middle of the Detroit Riots. The use of shaky cam at all the right moments makes us feel disoriented and exhausted as those characters in the scene, and the close-ups let us breath heavily and cry alongside them.
Boal’s script isn’t as darkly entertaining as his previous works; there is little joy or room for jokes here. While his other films allow for brief moments of banter or amusing quips from characters who have the luxury to do so much, here his characters are either yelling at suspects or have their hands and face pressed up against a wall. There are points of this that play out like a straight horror film as Boal and Bigelow build an incredible sense of unease, and when it all comes to a head and boils over you exhale because you can finally get something resembling resolution, even if it isn’t the kind that you were hoping for.
There is some controversy on both sides of the political aisle about this film, with some people claiming a white writer/director had no right telling this story while others say that the film is just “white genocide liberal propaganda.” Putting aside both idiotic claims, the film does a masterful job of trying to paint things as objectively as possible, and I think given both the historic situation and today’s modern climate, Bigelow and Boal deserve massive props. We see the obvious abuse of power by the police but also are shown that the rioters didn’t always get upset for the right reasons, and may have done their cause more harm than good in some cases.
“Detroit’s” biggest problem is it could have been a little more concise. Once we are in the motel things get a little repetitive, with Poulter (who is incredible and almost unrecognizable from his clueless nerd in “We’re the Millers”) and his fellow officers yelling at, punching and then dragging off the suspects one by one. It drives the point home of the senseless violence by the police, but from a film standpoint it drags a bit. Also the ending could’ve been trimmed a bit, and it meanders a little (if this film was 2:10 it would be perfect).
With any luck, “Detroit” gets some buzz and rides a wave to Oscar nominations for Best Picture, as well as for the work of Bigelow, Boal and Poulter, because it really is that good. It is a film that is sadly relevant today and is not an easy viewing, but I feel it is a necessary one. What happened in the Algiers Motel 50 years ago is awful, and it would have taken true master filmmakers to be able to do the victims justice; and Bigelow and Boal rise to the occasion.
Critics Rating: 8/10