Detroit – Successful Journalism, Not So Successful Cinema (Guest Review)

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have proven to be an invaluable filmmaking team the past decade. Whether exploring the Iraq War via a fictional character study (The Hurt Locker) or showing us the bureaucracy behind hunting the world’s most wanted man (Zero Dark Thirty), the two have been extremely successful tackling real subject material with a cinematic approach appropriate for the harsh topics they cover.

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.

When it comes to Detroit, Bigelow and Boal have once again captured the harsh reality of one of the nation’s toughest times. Unfortunately, retelling events, even if they are political in nature, does not automatically make a historical drama good. All movies, especially historical dramas, need to have a point, and Detroit is all over the place with its messaging. When discussing Detroit with my wife, she was having a hard time explaining her thoughts on the film. We agreed that the filmmaking was visceral and we definitely learned a lot about a horrible event that happened during the 1967 Detroit riots. What we were confused about was whether or not this visceral, informative filmmaking served any purpose behind showing the audience what happened. I informed her that screenwriter Mark Boal’s former profession was that of a journalist and the film automatically made sense for both of us.

Detroit operates like a dramatic version of the Oscar winning documentary, O.J.: Made In America. That production, though considered a movie, is an 8-hour documentary that premiered on ESPN over the course of a week. We never need another O.J. Simpson documentary now as Made In America covered it all, from childhood to football to the murder to the trial to post-acquittal life and eventual imprisonment. Like O.J.: Made In America, Detroit addresses the infamous riots from many different angles. Unlike O.J.: Made In America, Detroit is 2 ½ hours long when it needed to be 3-4 times that length to accomplish its goals of informative cinema.

When compared to Detroit, we see why their two other films were such successes. With The Hurt Locker, yes Boal’s journalism served the film well in setting the stage of the realities of Iraq. But a fictional character and fictional story made for a thrilling film addressing all of our veterans as they deal with post-war life. With Zero Dark Thirty, there is an impeccable attention to detail that only a journalist could bring, but there was still a central character (Jessica Chastain’s Maya) in which we navigate the confusing 10 year journey. Detroit needed to follow the Zero Dark Thirty route, tackling a real life event through the perspective of a single character with a clear motivation, arc and (most importantly) a point to be made. Detroit’s sole focus, it seems, is cinematic journalism and simply informing audiences about the horrific events that happened at the Algiers Motel.

Make no mistake, every actor involved does a great job communicating the terror of the event. John Boyega really shines here as a grocery store security guard swept up in the drama involving Detroit Police, Michigan State Police and the National Guard. Additionally, Will Poulter portrays the Detroit officer leading the abuse of Motel inhabitants, putting a face to racism and police brutality in that time. The cast is rounded out by a strong ensemble made out of Jason Mitchell, Anthony Mackie, Jacob Latimore and Algee Smith.

In addition to the powerful acting, there is a reason Bigelow won Best Director in 2009, Detroit is impeccably shot and Bigelow brings a grittiness few directors can bring to screen. All the directing flourish one would expect after seeing The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty is on display here. Detroit communicates police brutality from the perspective of a horror movie and by the end we experience the same fear of those who went through that horrible night.

While it might seem that the movie is communicating the theme of “the police are bad,” that is not the case. Whether you think that is a good or bad message, “the police are bad” is at least a message, and it would have been appreciated if the Boal had picked a message and stuck with it. Instead we are given ALL the messages a film like this can communicate.

Bias in the police force? Racism in our urban areas? Justification of riots? The desperation to find work (and stability of the auto industry)? The confusion of a National Guard service member trying to do the right thing in the midst of real racism?  A beautiful city with a strong culture with Motown? A broken justice system that betrays our most vulnerable? What does this movie want to say? Because as it stands right now, Detroit touches on all these subjects and more.

Again, give this movie 2-3 hours of talking heads and more footage from the actual event, you would have yourself a thorough documentary miniseries that teaches audiences about the city, the times and this specific event. Right now though, all we have is a 2 ½ hour movie that touches on every tough subject surrounding racism/police/riots/urban life, without actually exploring any one of them in a satisfactory way.

Kathryn Bigelow is one of the best directors working today. Mark Boal’s journalism background means that his screenplays are gems when it comes to tackling these subjects. It is so unfortunate that Detroit proved that this pairing does not mean automatic success. There are so many recent successes when it comes to historical dramas (Zero Dark Thirty being one of them), hopefully Bigelow and Boal will tackle other harsh subject matter, but they have to have a central theme/focal point to anchor their stories. Otherwise all we will get is another well directed, visceral version of a History Channel recreation scene.

Score: 6/10


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