You have to be wary of those films out there that are marketed as, “The terrifying secret you never knew behind this big historical event.” 99% of the time it rings completely hollow and the films are usually just falsely crafted narratives to increase dramatic tension. There’s always that 1%, though. If you have a talented enough filmmaker, they can give us an interesting perspective on these historical events, using the medium of visual storytelling to their advantage. 

In 1967, a group of police officers raid an illegal bar that is filled with black citizens and arrest them all, sparking rioting and protesting in the streets of Detroit. While the citizens destroy and loot their town, the National Guard is called in to assist the police. After hearing numerous gunshots from the Algiers Motel, three white police officers are sent in to investigate, believing one of the many black occupants to be a sniper. Lining all of them up against a wall, the officers begin using psychological torture, intimidation tactics, and even murder to find the alleged shooter, as Detroit burns in the background. 

Director Kathryn Bigelow is no stranger to touchy source material, covering real life subjects such as the War in the Middle East in films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Like before, she handles Detroit with the same amount of assured authority and maturity. She’s a master at planting you right into the events of the film and immersing you the entire way through. It’s not really a film about the 1967 Detroit Riot, as that’s more of a backdrop to this more intimate story about the effects racism has on everybody. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have an agenda and point to make, sure, but it never really felt preachy. It represents racism and its ugliness in all forms, from the abuse from white people, but also to black people burning down white businesses in retaliation. It just felt like real life, and unfortunately, reality has a lot of horrors to it. Nor is it simply black and white.

The film almost feels like a documentary at times, even down to showing real photos and video footage of the actual events. There’s a lot of handheld camerawork, and that frenzied nature combined with the rapid editing was the perfect way to represent the chaos and confusion of the situation. It was occasionally confusing in the beginning as it jumped around locations, though. Not only does it feel like a documentary, but it also feels like a horror film. It’s incredibly suspenseful, especially in the middle section where we spend an uncomfortably long time inside the motel feeling just as helpless as our characters. The structure of the story does feel a little disjointed, but it’s exceptionally paced, with Bigelow building tension and capping it off at all the right moments. It’s not a terrifying film just due to the nature of the events, but because of how strikingly she captures this event. 

When I was afraid that the characterization of the some of the characters, especially the racist white ones, was going to be too one-note, little twists throughout inject a little humanity into them here and there. Will Poulter gives the standout performance as a frightening racist and psychopath. You never knew what he could do next. A lot of the side characters were pretty thin, but it felt like the filmmakers were more so trying to represent the experience and the themes, than tell a more dramatic narrative. However, they do bookend the film with aspiring Motown singer Larry Reed, played by an excellent Algee Smith, showing how the motel incident has an effect on him. As with any huge ensemble film, you’re bound to have some shoddy performances and stilted dialogue here and there, but most of the cast is fantastic. I do need to ask, though, why cast John Krasinski in such a minor role? It’s just weird seeing Jim from The Office show up in a historical drama out of nowhere at the end. 

Unlike the actual city itself now, everything about Detroit felt absolutely sophisticated. I respect the fact that a filmmaker will straight up say with text on screen that while this was based on true events, dramatic liberties were taken. This is of course the case with all films, but it shows the maturity and class that everybody involved with this film had. Detroit succeeds in being a harrowing historical drama, a relevant commentary on racial relations, and a horrifying thriller that puts you right in the middle of it all. Unfortunately, the scariest part of it all is how this fifty year old event feels like it could be taking place at anytime right now.


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