Detroit

Year: 2017
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Will Poulter, Jason Mitchell, Jack Reynor, Hannah Murray

Written by Fiona Underhill

On paper, this film has many elements that appeal to me; a female director, set in 1960s America, a true story set during the Civil Rights era and actors (particularly two British stars) who I like. I also visited the city of Detroit in January of this year and when I first heard of this film a few months ago, I thought it could be among the best of the year. Unfortunately, I was left frustrated and disappointed by this film. 

The film begins by showing the unrest and rioting in the city of Detroit in 1967. We focus in on several characters; Larry (Algee Smith) and Fred (Jacob Latimore), members of a band trying to make it big in Motown, Dismukes (John Boyega) is a factory worker and security guard, juggling several jobs while trying to keep his head down and stay out of the trouble bubbling up around him and white police officers Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor – following his breakout roles in ‘Sing Street’ and ‘Free Fire’). While trying to make it home after an aborted gig, Larry and Fred take refuge at the Algiers Hotel and there they meet two white girls; Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). The rioting has reached the stage where there is a curfew and there is a heavy military presence on the streets. It is in this highly-charged environment that some young black men, horsing around, decide to fire a toy gun out of one of the hotel windows. This, of course, gives the police an excuse to invade the hotel, round up everyone there and start interrogating them, using methods of torture.

The true story behind this film is fascinating, particularly in the context of black American history and the current reality of black people experiencing police brutality, with the white cops getting off scott-free. However, director Kathryn Bigelow somehow manages to make the story feel long and boring. It is definitely pacing and editing that are the biggest flaws here. It feels like it takes a long time for the film to get to the events at the Algiers, then the main event (which is an extended sequence of brutal torture and murder) feels like it goes on forever, THEN, by far the worst section takes place AFTER this – when the narrative structure just seems to go haywire. The whole film felt like it was at least twice as long as it actually was and this is a disservice to the real people involved.

It’s a shame because the acting is mostly fantastic. I have watched Will Poulter’s career closely since he was in one of my favourite films, ‘Son of Rambow’. He plays an evil character extremely well here. Bizarrely, one of the biggest stars, Anthony Mackie (currently playing Falcon in the MCU) has a relatively small role; as a Vietnam veteran who happens to be the one caught in the same room as the two white girls – making him one of the main targets for the police. However, his character is not given any backstory before we get to the Algiers, so he feels like a tacked-on side character. I feel for Boyega, who seems to have had several misfires since showing such potential in ‘Attack the Block’, then exploding as an international star in ‘The Force Awakens’. His characters in both ‘The Circle’ and now this have NOT served him well. Dismukes should be the most fascinating character here, he enters the scene at the hotel ostensibly on the cop’s side. However, he makes some questionable and unbelievable choices and the way his character is handled after the night in the hotel is confusing and muddled. John Krasinski (again, a pretty big star) enters the film right at the end, as a lawyer hired by the police union to defend the racist cops. Smith and Latimore are great finds as probably the ‘central’ characters – they are the ones we follow most closely across the three acts of the narrative. If this film falls down, it is not the actors’ fault.

There are some unbelievable moments in this film that you cannot help but wonder if they would have been handled differently by a black writer or director. The racist cops are almost handled as ‘a few bad apples’, as opposed to being a product of institutional racism. I cannot go into details because of spoilers, but after the events at the hotel, some of the cops (especially at a high level) are portrayed as sympathetic to the black victims and appalled at the actions of the three police officers at the centre of the action. This just does not ring true to me. It is disappointing that a film that was highly anticipated by me and many others, mainly because of the director, has fallen short at telling would could have been a vital and relevant story to today’s America. A missed opportunity.

 Fiona’s rating: 6 out of 10
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