John Has Issues with Detroit


Rating: B- to a C+

Synopsis: During the infamous Detroit riots of 1967, several young black men and two white women were detained and tortured by three policemen in what is known as the Algiers Motel Incident. Three of those black men were unjustly murdered, the three policemen were found not guilty.

Seeing as how 2017 has come to a close, I had been attempting to catch up on films I had missed, and have a deep interest in checking out. Detroit was definitely on the top of the list.

Stirred in controversy, Kathryn Bigelow’s historical thriller peaked my interest earlier this year not only for its incredible cast but also for the relevance of the film’s narrative. Many critics take umbrage with the sheer fact that a white director and screenwriter would attempt to portray this moment in African American history, no matter how much research is done. Personally, I’d have to agree with some of these criticisms. It reeks of white filmmakers taking the suffering of persons of color for sheer shock value (looking at you, Orange is the New Black). Of course, I can understand it may have been conceived with good intentions, and the filmmakers did research into the incident by talking with first-hand accounts and historians. However, at the end of the day, is it really their story to tell?

Judging this solely as a film, Bigelow masterfully portrays visceral violence and tension that transpired. The first third of the film plays out like a war film, showing how the powder keg of racial tensions leads to civil chaos. Even opening the film with some key details on the history in the form of urban art. The second act plays out the horrific events that transpire in the Algiers Hotel, the emphasis being on horrific. These scenes are the hardest to watch and are especially effective in eliciting a response.  The final act deals with the trial that follows, the trauma of one of the victims, and fills you with a sense of deflation. Alongside the drama, Bigelow shoots moments of true humanity and joy excellently. This can be seen specifically in the scenes with the R&B group the Dramatics. Bigelow knows her craft and still remains the queen of tension in the film.


For me, the highlight of this film is some of the performances. John Boyega plays the wonderfully complex Dismukes, who not only tries to look out for others but tries to play by societies roles. Some could write off his character as a so-called  “Uncle Tom”, but ultimately his character illustrates a man who knows his lot, and works through it accordingly. When his character is faced with the horrors of what transpired you can see the conflict running through his mind. However the that touched me most was Algee Smith’s powerful performance as Larry Reed. Aside from his excellent charm and Motown singing style, Smith portrays the effects of trauma on one’s soul. The rest of the cast is great, some faces you’ll be sure to recognize.

Ultimately my issues with this film are ultimately it is very procedural and has very little to say about what transpired. What does the film have to say about unjust Police violence? About race in America? The Detroit riots themselves? And most importantly, who is this film for? The film bombards us with the imagery of violence and Black pain but doesn’t give us much else. It just reminds us of the apparent disconnect between the artists, Bigelow and Boal, and the subject they chose to portray. Compare this to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a film that not only presents you with a strong narrative about the Black experience but also demands the audience looks inwards onto themselves and society as a whole. One film is an artist’s individual statement on what it is to be Black in America, the other being mere silent observers of said experience. If anything else, this film has reminded me that there is still work to be done when it comes to WHO gets to tell these stories. Especially when it comes off as just another creative exercise for the artist in question. I commend this film’s level of research and Bigelow’s desire to spark a discussion, but was there ever even an attempt to bring in even a black screenwriter? As critics, it isn’t enough to critique a work of art on its own. We must also ask why it’s made and who’s making it.   


I suppose for some it would be enough to be reminded of the horrors of the past and our present, but ultimately I feel we can do better than this. In this political climate, I don’t think it’s enough to just present events without commentary. After all, we still live in a country where a man can kill a 12-year-old black child, and still go free.      


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