Review: Detroit | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Detroit

Film Critic Morgan Williams is underwhelmed by Kathryn Bigelow's latest drama, Detroit

As someone who worked in a cinema this summer, I watched a lot of trailers. I watched a lot of the same trailers over and over and over again. I can recite all the words from The Emoji Movie trailer by heart. Please don’t talk to me about that Victoria and Abdul film. Every cut, every comedic turn, every damn line of that wretched mess is engraved onto my brain forever. With this in mind, I must’ve seen the trailer for Detroit at least twenty to thirty times and I still wanted to watch it. I purposely didn’t Google the event it was based on, the Detroit riots of 1967, so I wouldn’t ‘spoil’ it for myself. I was incredibly excited to watch this film.

After finally watching it, I’m not so sure it was worth the hype.

Detroit takes a personal approach to its storytelling. After the initial cause for the riot is set up, we focus in on several characters, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), the lead singer of The Dramatics, an up-and-coming R&B group, his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), Phillip Kraus (Will Poulter), a trigger-happy police officer, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a private security officer, and a Vietnam vet, Greene (Anthony Mackie) as all of them struggle through the infamous 1967 Detroit riots.

The scenes in the Algiers Motel take the form of an almost exploitative horror

The director of Detroit, Kathryn Bigalow, has an exceptional body of work (she still remains the only female winner of the Best Director Academy Award), and the screenplay writer Mark Boal’s work on films such as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty has been notable, but as white people this isn’t really their story to tell, and it shows through their storytelling. Instead of focusing on the riot as a whole, the majority of the film centres on the Algiers Motel Incident, an incident in which three black teenage boys were brutally beaten and murdered by police officers, and a further seven black men and two white women were also beaten and threatened with death.

The scenes in the Algiers Motel take the form of an almost exploitative horror as police march the black men and white women into separate rooms, as they beat them, belittle them and occasionally murder them. While this is effective in allowing the audience to sympathise and cringe in horror at these despicable acts, it is not so effective in explaining any wider significance to these actions. 1967 was a difficult time for civil rights in America as a whole, and Detroit more specifically.

By beginning the film exclusively on the eve of the first day of the riot, the narrative excuses itself from considering what social factors may have led to the riot in the first place. In this way the film seems to posit that it was this single raid of a speakeasy that led to the sustained period of rioting, which makes the motivations of the riot seem ludicrous. The film does not bother to mention the issues with housing black people were facing. It does not deign to note, even in a single dialogue with any of the characters, how segregation was enforced by white mobs, who would picket, threaten and often use violence against black people who moved into supposedly ‘white’ neighbourhoods. The unemployment rate of black men, more than double that of white men in Detroit, is not considered.

Detroit seems to gorge on violence. Sadly, in this current Alt-Right climate, we are all too aware of the prejudice and violence black people have suffered and continue to suffer in America, as well as globally. Depicting an hour-long orgy of police brutality and unprovoked, unnecessary death doesn’t seem to be an effective way of delivering this message anymore. It seems exploitative. The director and writer of this film are both white, and are earning money from this real story of black suffering. It just sits uneasily with me.

Boyega doesn’t bring anything particularly noticeable to this role, and leaves no lasting impression

Will Poulter’s performance is actually pretty good, considering the limited character he is given to work with. But then again, nobody plays no-questions-asked-evil like Poulter. The role does not seem to be a challenging one for him. Algee Smith, a newcomer to the big screen, delivers a phenomenal performance throughout the film, and is the real star of Detroit. As he stands and shouts at the trial for the officers ‘I am not on trial here’ and is ultimately hauled away by the bailiffs, every black person in the room stands and applauds him, and this is a performance truly worthy of applause.

Honestly Boyega, a major focus of the trailer, is barely noticeable in this film. As a black man in a position of authority, he is on the fence between both of the warring factions of Detroit - he is neither a black pedestrian nor is he a white police officer. However, Boyega doesn’t bring anything particularly noticeable to this role, and leaves no lasting impression. Detroit could have been an insightful look into the climate surrounding the Detroit riots of 1967. Instead on taking a small focus on one incident and its particular horrors, there could have been some additional context into why the incident itself was so unjust

VERDICT: Detroit could have brought more to the table than just scene after scene of ruthless, unexplained violence. Then maybe, just maybeDetroit could have left some kind of impact.

Rating: 6/10

TV n film reviewer- I yell about things I hate and love free of charge on the internet! (@ragga_moffin)


20th September 2017 at 9:00 am

Images from

Lyles Movie Files, Billboard and Cineplex