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David Poland

By David Poland

Review: Detroit (no spoilers)

detroit hands up

It’s an odd summer. It’s almost impossible to see Detroit after seeing Dunkirk without noticing the very different ways the two films turn the similar trick of reflecting on a huge story by narrowing down to one story, or a few stories that are connected by a single character.

Both films are set in the midst of a war. Yet, the movie set in the non-literal war of race and poverty in the United States is far more violent and painful than the movie set on a beach filled with 300,000 people under the immediate threat of being murdered by the Nazis. And speaking of the real-life villains, Dunkirk never names or shows the Nazis behind the barricades of the town of Dunkirk while Detroit makes the young racist policeman as significant a character in the film as any other… perhaps the lead.

The style of filmmaking couldn’t be any more dissimilar. Kathryn Bigelow delivers a documentary-style production, rough and handheld and sneaking glimpses through doorways and around corners, forever on edge, seeking out, at first, the party, and later, the constant threat that never allows anyone in the film to relax. Christopher Nolan, of course, puts on a master directorial clinic at huge scale, perfectly framed cinematic beauty, even when soldiers are under fire.

Another thing the two films share, though in quite different ways, is that Dunkirk is not really a war film and Detroit is not really a riot film.

Detroit, while steeped deeply in race, is not specifically about race. Obviously, the film takes place at a moment of serious racial stress and division and a white cop is rampaging against black people, in part because he sees them as a lesser form of life. And other people support this evil because of their racism.

But one of the excellent things is that while non-blacks cannot fully feel the black experience of America, anyone can understand and identify with the experience of this group of victims under the control of that small number of law enforcement officers gone rogue. The threat of state authority is alive and unwell in countries all over this planet, enforced against and abused by people of all races, religions, genders and ethnicities.

But primarily, Detroit is a movie about the abuse of police power and how we, then and now, respond to that behavior. There are good white people in this film… and good white policemen. But the true horror of Detroit is how abusive behavior can metastasize into something that gets worse and worse over a short period of time.

Detroit is about Detroit 1967, but it is also about Ferguson. And it is about the Australian woman who was shot through the window of a cruiser by a scared cop after she called in to report a rape. It about people who voted for Trump because they feel their idea of the world is being infringed upon by societal changes. It is about white people who watch or hear racism and say nothing. it is about entitlement and disenfranchisement. It’s Macbeth. It’s The Act of Killing. It touches on the worst of human instincts, primarily the instincts of those with power and the fear of losing that power.

And in some ways, Detroit is the bloody, uncomfortable, demanding, intimate, painful reflection of Dunkirk. In the dozen or so “main” characters of Detroit, you may find yourself and your posture in one or two or almost all of these people. You may – though you can never admit it in public – even identify with some of the positions of the bad cops for a moment (though the next horrible choice they make will likely snap you out of it instantly).

A quick unexpected conversation with another writer had him telling me that I was saying that “he just didn’t get it.” But that isn’t fair. Too simple. His dissatisfaction with the film… his urge for something more (he had specific notes) was sincere. Detroit demands self-reflection. And while some people will not care for it for other reasons, I would guess that a lack of interest in self-reflection will be a big factor for those who dismiss it easily.

Bigelow and regular collaborator Mark Boal lay down about 30 minutes of track before you get to the central story. This is when you may still think this is a movie directly about the July 1967 Detroit riot. Be patient and breathe it in. These events are everything you put in the pan with your Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing and basting juices included, that brings it flavor.

Then you get to the movie… What Happened At The Algiers?

It’s a horrible story. I would suggest you not read anything about it (at this point) before seeing the movie. But you take a city on edge, a bunch of law enforcement groups that are not effectively coordinated, and a bunch of young people who are a bit wild, but who are basically staying away from the trouble of the riots, and a few others, and with the BANG of a starter’s pistol, the hot snowball of rage and fear starts rolling downhill, gathering speed as all the individuals struggle to get out of the way.

I am not going to get into story, because that is your work and pleasure as a moviegoer. But there are many layers to this story of victims, victimizers, collateral damage and the jaded. There is racism, sexism, pacifism that borders on appeasement, opportunism, religion, lust, hate, paranoia, confusion, and so much more.

I haven’t had chance to see Detroit a second time, but my guess is that I won’t really have consumed what this movie offers in a full way until I have seen it three or four times. Often, it is like trying to think about something objectively after being punched in the face. There are so many blows landed that until some of the big painful moments are cataloged in your brain so you aren’t rocked in your seat, moments of this movie will be missing from your experience.

Performances are uniformly excellent. It is truly an ensemble film. Will Poulter would be the lead, if there is one… but you won’t want to think about his character as a lead. Algee Smith is the character that rises out of the ensemble through the film. But there are wonderful turns everywhere you look. There is no celebrity hierarchy. Hannah Murray, who you will recognize from a TV show (I will let you figure out which one), gives a really unexpected turn here as her character charges from one emotion to another. Honestly, the only actor I was unhappy to see was John Krasinski because it is a small-ish part, late in the film, and he feels like more of a celebrity showing up. He does well with it, but unlike other actors, he sticks out.

Detroit is a film of size and substance and I don’t want to commit to it being the best film of the major studio size releases this year to date, but I kinda do. I want to see it again before I go there. Honestly, I don’t know how I will feel the next time. Or the time after that. But I do know that I will feel. And feel deeply. And it will make me think about the world and my place in it and how I see others. This will make some writers very uncomfortable. What more could we ask of a film?

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19 Responses to “Review: Detroit (no spoilers)”

  1. leahnz says:

    this doesn’t appear to open here until freakin NOVEMBER, what the heck, how can that be right. needs more k-big

  2. Stella's Boy says:

    My father-in-law grew up in Detroit. In 1967 he was 10. He loves to tell people he vividly remembers the riots. He is rabidly right-wing and in his retelling of the riots “the blacks” are totally and completely to blame and responsible for driving all the nice white folks from the city to the suburbs. He is eagerly anticipating this and I look forward to his response as it’s not going to square with his version of events. I’m sure he’ll call it liberal propaganda.

  3. leahnz says:

    aw stella’s this is so depressing

  4. Bob Burns says:

    thanks for this review.

    now….. how do they get people to watch it?

  5. jspartisan says:

    Bob, they re-release it in FUCKING OCTOBER! Why, oh fucking why, is this a SUMMER RELEASE? No one wants to sit through this, when it’s a 100 freaking degrees outside. This screams OSCAR MOVIE, but they are putting it out in the Summer. Which means, it will be out in time for fucking Turkey Day, and every Academy member will have their screener in hand.

  6. Stella Boy says:

    I want to sit through it now. Can’t wait to see it. But early August does seem like an odd time to release it.

  7. Movieman says:

    I think they’re hoping for a “Butler”-style August breakout.
    But it’s a completely different kind of “historical” movie.
    Fingers crossed.

  8. JoeLeydon says:

    JS: Funnily enough, I remember a conversation I had with another notable filmmaker about whether the summer was an appropriate time to release his potentially incendiary movie. As I recall, it wound up being rather successful.

  9. JoeLeydon says:

    Stella’s Boy: Just curious — do you know if your father-in-law has ever read John Hersey’s The Algiers Motel Incident?

  10. Stella's Boy says:

    No chance. He isn’t much of a reader, at least of books. He collects right-wing books and has shelves full of them, but in more than 10 years I have only ever seen him read a newspaper. I’d be shocked if he read that.

  11. Daniella Isaccs says:

    I think it’s good counter programing to open this in August. People are tired of summer franchise movies, and here is a solid film that will over perform, just like DUNKIRK did, because of that. It may be hot outside, but theaters are air conditioned, and this, like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (and as Joe says DO THE RIGHT THING) could be a surprise summer smash.

  12. jspartisan says:

    Joe, that movie works during the Summer, because it’s Do the Right Thing. It’s about the hell that’s summer! That’s like it’s B-plot! Nevertheless, here’s to people wanting to see this movie now, and if it’s good? Being remembered next January.

  13. Stella's Boy says:

    The riot depicted in Detroit took place during the summer. Specifically, July 23-28, 1967. So it’s also about a hellish summer.

  14. Sideshow Bill says:

    This is my next trip to the theater. No fail. It feels like a perfectly appropriate time to release it. I hope it doesn’t get lost.

    Do The Right Thing is one of the all-time great Summer movies. All-time great ANY movie, but especially Summer time. It would make me sweat in the dead of Winter. What a masterpiece.

  15. Pj says:

    Detroit is a powerful and essential film but if I had to critique it, I didn’t find the Dramatics storyline compelling at all. It seemed like low stakes considering the difficult trip the audience goes on throughout most of the film. I mean I know that it happened in real life but doesn’t necessarily make it a compelling film.

    But on the positive, It plays like a horror film which is amazing since it is based on real events. That’s also why I think awards may be hard to come by at years end. It’s gonna need vocal champions, but with Get Put and Dunkirk already landing and a whole slew of movies to come it’s hard to say at this moment what will happen at the end of the day.

  16. Daniella Isaccs says:

    Again, timing won’t hurt w. Oscar. CRASH was a summer release, so was THE HURT LOCKER. Those are the two films closest to this in terms of relatively recent winners. If anything, coming out in December has seemed to hurt, not help, with the Academy Awards. What was the last post-Thanksgiving release to win Best Picture, anyway?

  17. Stella's Boy says:

    “What was the last post-Thanksgiving release to win Best Picture, anyway??

    The Artist, released on November 25, 2011 (the day after Thanksgiving).

  18. Movieman says:

    Who else thought the performances by the film’s black actors (excepting John Boyega who, admittedly, has an impossible role to play) were vastly superior to the white actors’ perfs?
    I adore Jennifer Ehle, but I’ve never seen her stiffer than she is in her “Detroit” cameo.
    Both Ehle and John Krasinski come off as rank amateurs.
    And why all the British actors? Did Bigelow film this on a London soundstage or something? (Speaking of Brits, does anyone know the story behind Jack Reynor’s frightening weight gain? He was chunky in “Sing Street,” but I’m starting to worry about his health.)
    Bigelow also commits one of the cardinal sins of period pieces by exaggerating the (cigarette) smoking. It’s as grievous a boo-boo as eliminating smoking altogether simply because it isn’t p.c.
    Also, directors should really consider instituting smoking workshops to train non-smoking actors how to convincingly smoke onscreen in period movies.

  19. Ryan says:

    I came out of Detroit with some complaints about the narrative, and the lack of character development before the main storyline begins, but the film has grown in stature in my mind over the past 24 hours.

    I agree with another poster that this could have made an excellent Tv mini-series along the lines of “The Night Of”. There needed to be more development of the Poulter character. I don’t want his insane behavior explained away by a traumatizing backstory, but a guy behaving as he did with no moral qualms has to come from somewhere and his behavior given some context (other than all white cops in the 60s were racists/it wasn’t just the 60s white cops either!!!).

    I also thought the storyline of the Boyega character was underexplained-seemed strange that these uber-racist white cops would have no problem with the presence of a black security guard who they don’t know watching them abuse and torture black civilians.

    These are minor complaints that might go away with another viewing. Kudos to Bigelow and Boal for at least beginning a conversation (in August no less) that nobody seems to want to join based on the BO numbers. It’s difficult to even discuss a film like this without everyone immediately drawing up their defense shields and being on the lookout for the PC police. I hope that people will eventually find this post-theatrical and judge it on its merits.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

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