Cinema: Power and Relevancy Establish 'Detroit's' Importance

It won’t be very rewatchable. It won’t leave you feeling satisfied about the story being told. What “Detroit” does do is portray an incredibly powerful story in a brutal, heavy and authentic manner that presents an all too eerie parallel to events going on in today’s society. 

Written and directed respectively by Oscar winners Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”), “Detroit” depicts the events that follow and lead up to the Detroit Riots of 1967, focusing on an incident that transpired at the Algiers Motel. On their way home from a singing performance that was shut down due to the surrounding violence, singer Larry “Cleveland” Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Simple (Jacob Latimore), book a room at the Algiers Motel to escape the chaos. Their attempted escape, however, is actually them steering into the skid. When a group of friends shoot off a toy gun as a joke towards the police officers on the street from The Algiers, the police waste no time, bursting through every room in the hotel to find the weapon. White officers Krauss (Will Poulter), Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole) lead the charge in getting to the bottom of who shot the gun, while local black security officer Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) watches on to try and ease the situation. The slow moving representation of the officer’s harassment and down right murder leaves the audience uncomfortable but simultaneously enthralled at the disgusting events.

Bigelow does a great job of building and maintaining the high intensity of the circumstances surrounding the riots. Opening with an animated montage of Jacob Lawrence’s, “The Great Migration” paintings, “Detroit” gives the audience a clear and comprehensive look into how the city of Detroit became what it was during the 1960s. The way that the inciting incidents of the riots are depicted before the film’s main characters and central plot are introduced is very smart.

Furthermore, the film is efficient in terms of presenting the situation from a multitude of angles. The most focused perspective was from the young, black victims of the riots. Targeted, harassed and murdered for no other reasons but fear and racism. Algee Smith is very impressive as his character goes from an optimistic and upcoming singer, to a brave but scared victim and finally to a traumatized and spiritually affected survivor. Cleveland goes through the biggest transformation and Smith profoundly illustrates this. Then there is the viewpoint from the police officers. The hatred the audience has toward these cops is a testament to Poulter, Reynor and O’Toole’s performances. Poulter uses brutality and cynicism to enhance the effect of the story’s message, as well as cement his ability to play villainous roles. Finally, the dynamic of Boyega’s Dismukes as a black law enforcer who tries to prevent mistreatment while being mistreated himself adds a fascinating complexity. Boyega delivers a very strong but subtle performance that demonstrates his range beyond the blockbuster world of Star Wars. Anthony Mackie's veteran Greene and John Krasinski's attorney Auerbach add to the influential dialogue.

The conclusion of the film definitely leaves you wanting something more. Not in terms of a satisfying ending because when it comes down to it, this story does not have a satisfying ending. There is nothing satisfying about watching a bunch of racist "law enforcers" illegally harass and murder innocent civilians just to be cleared of any wrongdoing through the American justice system. However, the ending’s complete focus on how Cleveland turned down an opportunity to sing with The Dramatics to instead work for the church, contrasts with the film’s lack of centralized protagonists. Sure, this demonstrates how not only was he not given justice for the wrongdoing he received, but also how his life’s ambitions were completely destroyed by the incident. However, the fact that the majority of the story is told from a multitude of angles just for the ending to focus entirely on one character doesn’t serve the film as a whole.  

What “Detroit” shines a light on effectively is the importance to both, stop injustices such as the incident at the Algiers Motel from occurring in the first place and to not let the harassers and perpetrators of the situation get away with such actions under any circumstances. Bigelow’s focus on the incident itself really authentically presents the audience with the terror and abuse that transpires during such hate and racist-infused situations. In times like today when there are still events fueled on hatred and racism, such as the one in Charlottesville last week, stories such as the one depicted in Detroit are extremely important and relevant in terms of preventing past situations from transpiring again, as well as exposing the negative effect actions such as the one portrayed in the film have on society.