Detroit - This Riotous Movie Rocks - With Caveats
Dir: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Hannah Murray, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Jack Reynor
So should Detroit actually be called “Detroit”? Or should it be called “Algiers”?
Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s latest collaboration starts off in bristling faux documentary style, recreating the events on the streets of Detroit as the city exploded in the summer of love of 1967 into violent, racially-based protest and action. It’s viscerally recreated and undeniably powerful. But it’s also something of a piece of misdirection.
For as the streets burn in hyper real doc style for the film’s first half hour or so, Bigelow then starts to introduce us to her central characters, beginning with Algee Smith’s singer and his up and coming Temptations-esque group, The Dramatists. As the streets go up in flames, the group retreat to the Algiers Motel where, after an episode involving provocative – but fake – gunfire, both the black residents, and the white girls partying with them, find themselves under tense claustrophobic siege from the National Guard, but mostly from the racist local police force, led by the bitterly resentful Poulter and Reynor.
Bigelow then focuses the majority of her movie on this increasingly fraught face off. Consequently, in many ways, Destroit becomes less a film about the city or the time it is set in, and more a damning indictment of systemic racism that is deliberately – and somewhat tragically – almost timeless. John Boyega’s gun carrying local security guard gets caught up in events as well, and while he provides a welcome restrained point of view, his sub plot ultimately also proves to be something of a dramatic cul de sac. (Despite fine work from the actor, and indeed all the cast, especially Poulter.)
There’s no denying that the majority of Bigelow’s film, - the sustained action at the Algiers, where you can practically feel the sweat of the fear coming off the walls, and the court case two years later - is emotive, powerful, screamingly brutal even, but the film as a whole is full of uneven and even hollow moments.
It’s a brave move to set your film up as one thing and then shift it into a whole other thing, audacious even. But Bigelow delivers too many hollow moments. Most notably when she strays into music-based scenes – there’s a Coltrane-themed speech here which borders on Will Smith’s appalling Bob Marley diatribe in I Am Legend (surely one of the lowest moments in all of cinema.) And Bigelow unwisely finishes off events with a protracted coda focusing on Larry, his walking away from Motown – because white people dance to it – and his later redemption in the local church. The real mistake here is that Bigelow thinks her audience is invested enough in any of her characters. Yes, we feel for them and the horrifically unjust circumstances depicted here. But none of them really work as more than archetypes, cyphers even. We don’t care about them as people. Thus, for all that succeeds here, Detroit (Algiers?) sadly ends on a bum note.
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