Detroit review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
There’s a deep sadness in how Detroit presents itself with a locked-in-your-seat grit to its tale of racism at its most horrific. Director Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t want to go easy on the audience. She grabs us by the throat and forces our faces down into the dirt of this hellish experience, refusing to let us leave from the most uncomfortable of scenarios where black people are held hostage and ruthlessly murdered. But in her attempt to force down the harshest of situations to better understand the heated hatred that turns powerful people into monsters and innocents into corpses, I fear she may have made me numb with her relentlessness, to a degree that makes me as winded and disgusted with the true-life crime as with Bigelow’s film, bitter and frustrated about the world.
Her setup is at least admirable. She does a perfect job conceiving the highest of racial tensions in a 1960s Detroit, from the news reports to the riots in the streets. It never feels mulled over, pointing the camera directly at the most horrific and inhuman moments, where a child peering through the blinds is mistaken as a sniper by the national guard. Some of the law enforcement is terrified of trying to enforce the peace against the raging black community that seeks to destroy the government that has wronged them. Officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) isn’t one of them. He takes a sick fascination in hunting down black people as if the act of big game hunting has finally come to his urban backyard. Officer Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is more terrified of the situation as a black man trying to find some peace and order in a city that is lacking in both. He knows that if he speaks up too much, he could be in the crosshairs of Krauss.
When the story shifts to the infamous incident at the Algiers Motel, they’ll be forced into the ugliest of ordeals where they’re forced to take a stand on how they feel or make themselves sick to their stomachs for what transpires. A suspected sniper was thought to be in the motel after a starter gun goes off, leading to a raid, an interrogation, and, eventually, the unlawful death of the suspects inside. The suspects include two Motown singers, two white women and a discharged black veteran (Anthony Mackie). We’re given an entire first act to know these characters, but all Krauss can see are criminals he wants to intimidate and gun down. The truth is that none of the suspects know who in the motel fired the weapon or if the weapon was indeed a starter gun.
For the entire second act, Bigelow bludgeons us by keeping us locked in the hotel with the suspects against the wall with guns to their heads. There could be great drama to such a premise, but she tries too hard to fill in the gaps of this investigation with grit that wears down the effectiveness. When guns bashed across the face turn into shot transitions and a failed escape through the motel basement breeds uncomfortable laughter for mimicking a horror movie style, the story grows so antsy that I have to imagine even the extremely racist cops are growing a bit winded of saying the N-word.
Everything around the intended savagery of the investigation is far more stellar. The chaos and carnage in the streets feel real, gruesome, and nightmarish, from chases down alleys to crowded police stations. The following courtroom battle presents a fearful and disgusted outcome where the racial lines are more divided than ever and a somberness washes over these once understanding characters that have now grown less trustworthy.
I felt bad that Detroit wasn’t better. There’s something powerful to be said and a telling tale of how one major crime has effects that still linger today in the hideous race war. While Bigelow doesn’t exactly fall flat on her face with this story, it begs a questioning of whether or not her draining filmmaking will get a point across. As I left the theater, I struggled to feel some contemplation for the case amid background discussions of black audiences hating white people more and the white audience thinking it was okay. These are not signs of a great film that gets us talking about the kinks in race and justice. Though Bigelow’s work has made me more intrigued to investigate, as with most movies based on true events, it also has me pining for a movie that has more to say.