Cinematic Releases: Detroit (2017) - Reviewed

After catching a screening of the Detroit Free Press produced documentary 12th and Clairmount, it was time to take a look at Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s hotly anticipated Detroit, chronicling the world infamous 1967 riots which rocked the city to it’s core.  As a Michigan resident and filmgoer, citizens of the state will receive the film’s theatrical release this Thursday, nine days before the rest of the country will see the film in release.  An unusual move for the Michigan film scene, particularly after the state’s film incentives have been eliminated entirely. 

In a rare once-in-a-lifetime event, Detroit saw it’s red carpet gala world premiere at the prestigious Fox Theater where residents and filmgoers like myself got an early peek with the cast and crew in attendance.  Somewhere around 5,000 patrons showed up for the screening which received a standing ovation after the closing credits of what proved to be a long, hard and harrowing journey through Hell in a city gone berserk with violence, looting and bloodshed.  It goes without saying Bigelow is an expert technical craftswoman who, like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, approaches the chaos from a near God’s-eye perspective before settling down on the infamous Algiers Motel Incident, boiling down the film’s cast of characters into one room on a truly terrifying night. 

Using largely handheld cinematography and reuniting with Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal while aided by a terrific ensemble cast including John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore and many more, Detroit is a visceral assault on the senses which at once will inspire righteous indignation towards the injustices depicted onscreen while also serving as a springboard for topical dialogue regarding modern political controversies presently playing out in our cultural climate.  Like other dramas addressing racial tensions and police brutality, the film is at once confrontational, draining and in the end offering a faint glimmer of hope for positive change.

That said, Detroit as a film is a mostly successful horror show of police brutality and civil unrest which unfortunately proved to be nowhere near as affecting or emotionally satisfying as the homegrown 12th and Clairmount, a film I will eagerly recommend over this Hollywood outsider’s take on the events that nearly completely destroyed the city.  For one thing, the film was largely shot in Boston, Massachusetts with one or two scenes shot in Detroit itself and residents as well as journalists from the area rightfully complained about the filmmakers’ failing to contact those who lived through the event themselves.  In other words, Bigelow and her team of Hollywood players made this entirely on their own which can make for incisive cinema while also running the risk of viewers quick to point out inaccuracies or fictionalization.  It doesn’t help that an intertitle near the end credits inform the viewer certain events surrounding the Algiers Motel were fictionalized for dramatic effect.

Overall, Detroit is a good film which could have been great and may have been a stronger work if it were simply and only about the Algiers Motel incident which ultimately became the film’s focal point of discussion.  What’s more, for all of Bigelow’s painstaking efforts to recreate one of America’s ugliest moments, nothing will ever be as astonishing and horrific as real footage of the rioting itself.  Though the film does make an effort to integrate much of the preexisting newsreel footage into the proceedings, it’s merely a fraction of what 12th and Clairmount offered viewers as well as residents.  This weekend there will be two films available about the 1967 Detroit riots and I think you know which one you should seek out instead.

- Andrew Kotwicki