Review: 'Detroit' Achieves Greatness, But Only Briefly

Michael Simon ’19/ Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
There is perhaps no director in Hollywood today who can expertly capture a moment in time in the way that Kathryn Bigelow can. She has shown time and time again in her Oscar-winning films Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker that her directorial talents are at their best when geared towards encapsulating how a specific moment or event impacted the community around it. She did it with the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, she did it with the war in Iraq, and she’s done it again with the Detroit riots of the late 1960s. Though the movie does have several issues that shall be delved into later on, it needs to be stated outright that this is the kind of work that Bigelow does best.
Now, many viewers may not really know what to expect from Detroit going into it. Trailers have been left intentionally ambiguous, so when entering the theater, viewers may be caught off guard with what exactly the movie spends the bulk of its time on. The incident in question is the police presence at the Algiers Motel amidst the riots and chaos that had wreaked havoc on Detroit. The entire second act is devoted to the tension and brutality of this face off, and it is here where the movie truly shines.

John Boyega in Detroit. Photo Credit: Annapurna Pictures.
The standout performances are Will Poulter as Philip Krauss and John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes. These fine young actors who have really only come into the spotlight in recent years deliver career-best performances. One would never think that the dorky kid from We’re the Millers could play the racist and violent police officer seen here on screen. Likewise, Boyega brings a terrific nuance to his character, towing the line of tension expertly as he found himself on both sides of the divide here; an African American man who was in a position of power. His work here – specifically in this middle section of the film – is nothing short of brilliant.
However, although the second act of Detroit may be some of Bigelow’s best work to date, the remainder of the film is anything but. The movie begins rather abruptly and immediately starts juggling too many stories at once. While the entire supporting cast of the movie ranges from good to great, when there are too many people to keep track of, it can get rather hard to follow or connect with anyone. Because of this, some early steps of the narrative are either overlooked or not handled properly – specifically the instance in which the riots began. What is shown on film comes across as far too trivial to warrant the nationally-covered riots that ensued.
Detroit. Photo Credit: Annapurna Pictures.
In addition to this, the ending of the movie feels relatively tacked on rather than fully fleshed out as it deserved to be. Many will find Detroit to be a very timely movie, given the state of the country today, and yet what people may want to see most gets quickly glanced over and resolved almost without a second thought. The film transitions too quickly from the almost horror-esque vibe of the second act to a dramatic courtroom drama in the third. The transition never really works and so the final 30 to 40 minutes of the movie feels very out of place, giving the movie as a whole a very unbalanced feeling.
However, the film’s greatest detriment is perhaps the ending title card in which the audience is told that, due to the amount of speculation surrounding the events at the Algiers Motel, most of the movie is severely dramatized and perhaps not entirely factual. For a movie with as much potential for powerful resonation as Detroit had, there could be no worse note to end on. To go from a harrowing emotional story of violence and oppression to an ending that throws the accuracy of it all into question, to say the film loses its steam is an understatement. For viewers hoping to get the most out of Detroit, focus on the crucible-like atmosphere of the second act, for it is there and only there where this film achieves and surpasses the greatness that it’s director is capable of. The rest unfortunately, pales in comparison.
Overall Grade: B+
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