FILM REVIEW – DETROIT. With John Boyega, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell. Written by Mark Boal. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language. 143 minutes.
Do you find the slogan “Black Lives Matter” offensive because you think all lives matter? Do you think the acquittals of white cops who have shot and killed black men is simply a matter of the courts doing their jobs? Did you think President Trump was making a “joke” when he encouraged police officers to rough up suspects they had in custody?
If you answered yes to any of these, you are the person who needs to see DETROIT. Based on a true account of the murder of three black men by Detroit police at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 riots––and the beating of several other black men and two white women––this is a movie about not only our history, but also life today, fifty years later. The mistake we often make is assuming that movies about racism means it’s a “black film.” No, as a 62 year old white film critic, let me point out that there’s nothing here, other than perhaps some historical details, that black viewers don’t already know. It’s white moviegoers who need to see this instead of turning away.
Director Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”), herself a white woman, wondered if she was the right person to tell this story. She was and is. While sensitive to getting the facts right she has said her purpose in making this film is contributing to the conversation this country needs to have about racial injustice and police brutuality. The film makes it clear that all police officers are not part of the problem. However, the problem are officers like Krauss (Will Poulter), who beats a black Vietnam veteran (Anthony Mackie), accuses him of lying about being a veteran, and outright accuses him of being a pimp for the two white girls at the motel, women he doesn’t even know.
If you’re like this critic, you grew up being told the police are your friends, and you should seek them out in an emergency. In “Detroit,” we see why in black families the conversation is different. Even the veteran, who refuses to back down, addresses the white cops as “sir” and insists that he doesn’t want to make any trouble. And when we see the trial of the rogue officers we see why––then and now––it’s easy to assume that the system will protect them and thus obedience to even the most outrageous and unlawful demands is the only rational response.
“Detroit” is, at times, a hard film to watch, intentionally so. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal put us right in the middle of the action, and there’s no turning away. By focusing on this one notorious incident, it’s easy to see why Detroit and other cities were burning in 1967. Martin Luther King may have preached non-violence, but when you have nothing left to lose it’s hard to see Gandhi as a role model.
Those people who answered “yes” to one or more of the questions at the start of this review should do two things. First, they should ask themselves how they would feel and what they would do if the situation was reversed, and they were the ones being choked to death or shot in the back or beaten and given no treatment by black police officers who were then acquitted of all charges. And, second, they should see “Detroit” and then begin the conversation about what we are going to do about a national problem we have left festering for far too long.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.