Director Kathryn Bigelow knows how to overwhelm viewers with visceral action and heart-stopping suspense as she proves in Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, for which she became the first woman to win an Oscar for directing. In her latest film, Detroit, she concentrates on what has come to be known as the 12th Street Riot there in 1967.
She and writer Mark Boal single out the July 25 police murder of three black men at the Algiers Motel and the brutal treatment of seven additional black men and two white women. Her characteristic technique is on full display: a moving camera staying in close on subjects, framing and reframing with quick edits adding up to jumpy images with few pauses.
Unfortunately, in Detroit she delivers not characters but caricatures, sensationalizing the deplorable racism on full display but so two-dimensional and grotesque that it attacks the senses, crossing the divide from justifiable condemnation to counterproductive emphasis. Moreover, the excessive indulgence drags on in this two hour twenty-minute portrayal of truly racist ugliness, so much so that the trial in the final act is abbreviated and rushed. Points that should be explored and action that should be fully deplored, both by judicial and police representatives, end up glossed over in surrender to what any sane person immediately recognizes as racist-motivated torture.
Detroit begins with a very brief history of black migration and ghettoization and a quick montage of fabulous Jacob Lawrence paintings. Riot footage, sadly much too familiar today, sets the stage before the action moves to the Algiers Motel. Once there, the racist police take over, led by sneering, snarling, nauseating Detroit officer Krauss (Will Poulter). In a skilled portrayal by John Boyega, the wise and wary security guard Dismukes is the closest to our surrogate, and we need one to try to keep any reflective distance on the victimization.
Jacob Latimore as Fred, Malcolm David Kelley as Michael, Peyton Alex Smith as Lee, Nathan Davis, Jr. as Aubrey, Joseph David-Jones as Morris, and Algee Smith as Larry are names and performances to remember, next time, I hope, in a more positive story.
Yes, as the tag line for Detroit proclaims, "It's time we knew." Less heat and more thoughtful consideration would recommend it to me. See area listings.