Review: Kathryn Bigelow has done it again. Following up after her career-defining, Best Picture-winning war film “The Hurt Locker” and the equally praiseworthy account of SEAL Team Six’s takedown of Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty,” she has returned to the stage with yet another home run — placing herself at the forefront of the conversation surrounding this year’s upcoming awards season. With “Detroit,” Bigelow has demonstrated for the third consecutive time that she is a force to be reckoned with; her directorial brilliance is on full display, cementing her status as an industry legend and yielding a motion picture that is all but guaranteed to receive a generous amount of recognition from the Academy in the form of multiple Oscar nominations.
“Detroit” is a gut-wrenchingly harrowing retelling of the events that transpired in Detroit, Michigan, during the summer of 1967 when racial tensions reached a boiling point and spawned one of the deadliest strings of mass riots in the history of the United States. The film chronicles the experiences of several characters in the run-up to a highly controversial confrontation between members of the Detroit Police Department and occupants of the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25, 1967: Larry Reed (Algee Smith), Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie), and a young, hotheaded police officer named Krauss (Will Poulter) among others. Bigelow sets the stage by allowing us to encounter the cast organically as the rioting breaks out around them and they inadvertently find themselves confronted with what turn out to be life-altering choices.
Within minutes of being introduced to each of these individuals, we’re able to understand who they are. In a relatively short span of time, the director provides the audience with enough detail to comprehend the complexities of the world in which these characters exist and the motivations behind the respective actions that result in their arrival at the Algiers. But what truly sets Bigelow apart is her refusal to prevaricate when presented with the opportunity, or the temptation, to do so. There’s an inherent verisimilitude within the script, production design, and the acting that generates a level of realism virtually exclusive to documentary. And it’s this very realism that makes this movie so excruciating to watch yet so intensely transfixing at the same time.
The scenes depicted in the film’s second and third acts are so astonishingly brutal that they demand one’s undivided attention in order to fully grasp the magnitude of what’s unfolding before them. It’s an undeniably sensitive issue for anyone to attempt to tackle in 143 minutes; however, the conviction with which Kathryn Bigelow approaches the subject matter is palpable throughout the movie. Her unwavering faithfulness to historical accuracy and her commitment to revealing the truth has given it new life more than fifty years after the incident occurred. She has resurrected one of the lesser known failures of the American justice system with impeccable timing, paving the way for a national conversation that is long overdue between people on both sides of the political aisle.
Acting is far and away the most important component of the film's makeup, so it’s no surprise that Bigelow has once more exercised her knack for identifying untapped talent to assemble one of the best ensembles we’ll see all year. Leading this stellar troupe of actors is newcomer Algee Smith, who cut his teeth making one-off appearances in Disney programs like “Let It Shine” and small budget features like “Earth to Echo” before landing the gig as New Edition frontman Ralph Tresvant in BET’s “The New Edition Story.” Smith is a revelation in his breakout cinematic role, combining his demonstrable range as an actor with his gift for vocal performance. Also worthy of acknowledgement is Will Poulter, whose portrayal of the most detestable figure in the entire presentation affords the thriller just enough imbalance to keep it constantly teetering on the brink of all-out insanity. The remainder of the cast — which includes the likes of John Boyega of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Anthony Mackie of “Captain America: Civil War,” Jacob Latimore, Kaitlyn Denver, Hannah Murray and John Krasinski of NBC’s “The Office” — contribute equally commendable support throughout, often serving in quasi-leading capacities of their own as opposed to being relegated to more traditional secondary roles. This is a categorically outstanding collection of thespians that, under the charge of this director, produce one of the most memorable exemplifications of chemistry since 2015’s “Spotlight.” If history serves as any indication, it won’t be long before the members of this cast — particularly Algee Smith — find themselves delivering acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards.
Technically speaking, “Detroit” boasts all of the Bigelow trademarks. The cinematography, editing, music, sound, and production design are superb. And while the shake-and-zoom camerawork occasionally clashes tonally with some of the pauses in the chaos, it’s not distracting. Additionally, it’s somewhat surprising that aside from Smith’s vocal performances and some 60s tracks playing as practical audio from record players or radios within the movie, there’s not much of James Newton Howard’s score present in the final cut. This isn’t to suggest that it’s an issue for the movie. It’s not. It’s actually quite refreshing to view a work like this without an overly-dramatic musical arrangement competing with the dialogue — which is absolutely crucial in “Detroit.” As with Kathryn Bigelow’s previous two films, it suffers very few setbacks. She is an exceptional filmmaker with as much understanding of the medium as Spielberg, Villeneuve or Fincher. For the sake of the industry, we can only hope that she continues to be given the opportunity to tell stories like these: stories that genuinely matter.
Final Take: I admit, I entered the theater with cautious optimism. I was uncertain about the direction Bigelow would take the narrative given the current political climate in the country. But by the end of the film, all my fears had been dispelled as I sat there both furious and in awe of what I had just witnessed on the screen. This was a movie that sickened me, but one that also stirred me emotionally as I felt as though I was finally beginning to understand an experience that I could not previously relate to.
The history of the 12th Street Riot is not something that I recall ever being familiar with. And if at some point I had been, I am ashamed to have forgotten it. Thankfully, Kathryn Bigelow has provided us all with unprecedented access to this story and has made it more tangible than ever before. Yes, it’s a painful reminder of this country’s ugly history with respect to race relations during the decade that gave us the Civil Rights Act. But it’s an important reminder at that. Because while we are currently closer than we’ve ever been to achieving the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of, we’re not there yet. And this film is a great step in the right direction towards building a bridge by which we may be able to empathize with our American brothers and sisters in ways we never imagined possible.
This is a testament to the power of filmmaking. And it’s a piece of cinema that should be seen by everyone across the political spectrum who seeks to find a means of making this country a better place; a country that recognizes the failures of the past, charges forward into the future and marches up the metaphorical mountaintop towards the promised land that Dr. King envisioned — a shining city on a hill that only America, her founding principles and her people can provide.
Parental Guide: This is not a kid-friendly film. It’s laden with violence, language and disturbing images of African Americans being abused as they’re held hostage by members of the DPD inside the Algiers Motel.
The Verdict: 9/10