Detroit – An Overambitious Human Drama

Kathryn Bigelow directing is the only thing I need to know.

Synopsis: The true story of one of the most terrifying moments during the civil unrest that rocked Detroit in the summer of ’67. Amidst the chaos of the Detroit Rebellion, with the city under curfew and as the Michigan National Guard patrolled the streets, three young African American men were murdered at the Algiers Motel. 50 years after the events of July 25th, 1967, the question remains: what happened at the motel? (Annapurna Pictures)

Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, and Algee Smith

Writer: Mark Boal

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Rating: 14A (Canada)/R (United States)

Running Time: 143mins

Trailer: 

For showtimes and more, check out Detroit on movietimes.com.

As mentioned, the film takes place during the race riots in Detroit, Michigan, in 1967. Those looking for more of a why may be disappointed. The film establishes this very tense backdrop early on and approaches it through the eyes of three characters, Melvin Dismukes (Boyega), Philip Krauss (Poulter), and Larry Reed (Smith), as they all converged on the Algiers Motel where three young African American men were murdered on July 25th, 1967.

Dismukes was a security guard just trying to survive. Krauss was an overzealous cop who often took matters into his own hands which got him in trouble but being the time it was, he seldom faced consequences for his actions. Reed was an up-and-coming singer of a Motown group call the Dramatics. The plot of the film followed a three act structure consisting of before, during, and after the Algiers incident. Before the incident, we follow these characters around during their already difficult lives made even more difficult with the riots. The film depicted 1967’s Detroit with a great degree of authenticity and its intimate cinematography helped give the film an excellent sense of immersion although its overuse of closeups may not be for everyone

This first act was probably meant to create an emotional connection with the characters and to give them some sort of redemption but this wasn’t as effective as it should have been. Once the story arrived at the Algiers, Dismukes, Reed, and a bunch of other African-Americans and two white women (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever), found themselves in a dangerous situation at the hands of Krauss and his fellow corrupt cops (Jack Reynor and Ben O’Toole). The strained relationship between the Detroit cops and its African-American community set the stage for the standoff, making it suspenseful and intense to watch as we didn’t know who was going to survive.

We got to experience this through several perspectives, including the aforementioned characters and a few new ones at the scene. They were all visibly scared and all did not want to die that evening. In order to extract information from them, the cops took turns beating on the various hotel inhabitants and threatened to kill them if they didn’t comply (not much is known about what actually happened so the film took some liberties by filling some of these gaps). Dismukes was also there during the proceedings, however, there was only so much he could do. He wanted to help but beit self-preservation or cowardice, he never stood up to the cops. By the time it all ends, there were still roughly 30 minutes left in the film so it has a third act.

This third act served to give redemption to some of the characters but the tone change here made it so it didn’t fit with the rest of the film. The end also may not come as much of a surprise and its resolution was also lacking and felt unearned, primarily because it rushes through it. This was simply a side-effect of the film’s ambitious storytelling. It tries to say so much and perhaps spreads itself a little too thin in the process. The first two acts worked decently together and the film could have still worked as a whole without this final act.

The acting was good all around with the actors doing the best with what they were given. The film could have used some more character development for the most of the characters as there appeared to be more to them below the surface. Boyega showed signs although was mostly a passenger throughout the film. Poulter was good as the menacing cop and making him someone to hate, reminiscent of Matt Dillon’s Oscar-nominated performance in Crash but not quite to that level. The character with the most development was Reed and Smith’s performance was the best. He was great as the young singer who was full of dreams and then beaten down by a traumatic experience, changing him forever.

Overall, this was a compelling drama full of humanity but is spread thin by its ambitious storytelling and lacks enough character development to make the story as impactful as it could have been.

Score: 8.5/10

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3 thoughts on “Detroit – An Overambitious Human Drama

  1. Well done review and I completely agree.. While the subject matter is relevant.. the middle 55min or so is really the heart of the film. It didn’t live up to my expectations of what I hoped, and while I liked it, I didn’t fall head over heels for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Same. I had the same complaint that people had with Dunkirk about not connecting with the characters. It was definitely an intense experience but it didn’t have as big of an impact as I would have expected.

      Liked by 1 person

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