Directed by Kathryn Bigelow Written by Mark Boal Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Jack Reynor, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben O'Toole & John Krasinski Film Review by Dean Pettipher
First and foremost, Detroit (2017) is a poignant, powerful and Oscar-worthy drama that offers a compelling interpretation of one of the darkest hours in US history. The picture is yet another reminder of George Santayana’s notion that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This particular reminder features some incredible performances from young stars that are only beginning to realise just how much potential they have as artists, as well as veteran players at the top of their respective games in the business. In addition, the suspense running riot throughout the tale, centred on one absolutely critical event, is oftentimes as furious as that which were raised from page and imagination to the silver screen with Dunkirk (2017). However, these qualities and more in Detroit are at risk of being overlooked. Indeed, the movie itself risks fading fast because of quite a few fundamental issues that are currently being all but totally ignored but running mercilessly rampant over anything that they can possibly tarnish. One critical problem is best explained by a prominent British journalist named Douglas Murray:
“The Left has been throwing around deliberately, knowing that they’re not true, allegations against people. With the modern Left, certainly since the end of the Cold War, they’ve basically had a supply and demand problem. They want racists, they want Nazis, they want bigots and actually, thank goodness, certainly in [the UK and] I think in [the USA], they’re in pretty short supply. So these people have to find them. They want a supply of bigots and racists and fascists and actually the supply is extremely small and the people they demand are too small in number to give them enough of a political identity. So they stretch it out. They deliberately use as offensive terms as they could and use them [for] people [who] they must know do not fit [those labels]. And I think that the result is among other things that they have denuded certain terms of any meaning. And this is going to come back and bite the Left in a big way. The accusation of racism, for instance, I don’t think is going to wash for very much longer. I just don’t. Nobody cares as much as they used to about that because they have seen the Left use it on everyone. I’ve seen it for years. I’ve seen my black friends called racists. I’ve seen my black friends called sell-outs and coconuts and all sorts of things. I’ve seen the [vilest] racial abuse of racial minorities by the Left and I don’t care about this anymore. It’s too late to be willing to be blackmailed by people who are fundamentally insincere in their insults.”
Two things prompt these words to the forefront of the mind. The first is the notion that ‘Hollywood’ as an entity has been unapologetically left-wing. Noting some speeches made at major awards ceremonies in recent years, especially by the prominent celebrities, as well as the endorsement of the Democrats at the last US election by ostensibly all of Tinseltown, one cannot be surprised by the second anecdotally-supported claim, which is that there are many people out there who have lost interest in Hollywood and, by extension, some of the key themes of Detroit because they are tired of, for instance, being constantly made to feel guilty at best and inherently evil at worst just because they do not share every facet of a certain point of view. Furthermore, they do not want to see Detroit or any other product of Hollywood like it, since they feel that they will get absolutely no pleasure and instead only misery out of it. Fortunately, thank goodness, while there is, rightly, a loud and clear illustration that racism is nothing but cruel and wrong, the picture never ventures as far as suggesting, for example, that all people of a certain race are malevolent. Similarly, not all who identify on the Left side of the political spectrum sit within the extreme spheres. The same, incidentally, goes for those on the Right of the political spectrum. Detroit does not seek to prompt a senseless overreaction and division based on ‘Identity Politics’ but rather a thoughtful reflection on the past. Such reflections are encouraged by various elements of the film towards establishing what unites rather than divides people, so that they can move beyond groups based on race, for example, into connections based on their shared humanness. Put simply, Detroit has been crafted by Kathryn Bigelow and her collaborators much more carefully than some might understandably think. Consequently, while the subject matter of the movie is far from rosy, Detroit may conclude the summer for many with a pleasant and definitely affecting surprise, not least because of the talent on and off-screen.
The performances are sensational. Two stars in particular, who both happen to be recipients of the BAFTA’s EE Rising Star Award, act to a standard that will unquestionably see them both considered for an Oscar nomination. John Boyega’s American accent is flawless yet again, having been employed wonderfully and refined in movies like Imperial Dreams (2014) and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015). His vocal expression and physical gestures are so different to what audiences have seen before that one can quite easily become lost in the character being portrayed and forget the performer behind the illusion. This masterclass is at its height during a pivotal interrogation scene that Boyega grasps so expertly that one can only be excited for where his potential as an artist will take him in the future. Will Poulter is likewise a British actor playing an American very convincingly, having also gained experience from past projects, which include We’re the Millers (2013) and The Revenant (2015). Poulter delivers a chilling performance as an oftentimes harsh and occasionally creepy police officer. What comes to life is a compelling antagonist who appears to hold extremely unkind views for what he truly feels are justifiable reasons. His performance is a key ingredient for making the central incident of the story so intense for the audience from start to finish. Again, one becomes so absorbed in the action as a result of the performance that it is as if the character being played has consumed the performer for good.
Algee Smith commands the central character with enviable grace, employing not only excellent acting but phenomenal singing along the way in order to convey the sheer tragedy of the situation. Flying deservedly high following his contributions to The Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-Present), Anthony Mackie gives another admirably charismatic performance, highlighting that he remains the perfect fit for any character that can be said to take other characters in the tale under his wing. Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever together play a charming duo of sweet but defiant young women who help illustrate the notion that one cannot just place a group of people in a box based on a single factor and hope to gain much from that box. Lastly, John Krasinski makes a fairly brief but important appearance as an attorney ruthlessly defending his guilty clients with stern professional cold-heartedness.
As mentioned at the outset, suspense is excellently created early on in the film and sustained throughout much of its running time in a similar way to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Both films create a sense that some sort of explosive event is constantly imminent at any moment. While it is the conflict on and around the French beaches in Dunkirk, it is the life-changing event at the Algiers Motel in Detroit. In Detroit, however, the suspense is reduced drastically in the aftermath of the incident. One wishes that it had been maintained at least throughout the court case that followed, which in comparison to the motel incident feels rushed at times. The change is so drastic that the pace occasionally feels as if it has come to a painfully sudden halt, until one realises a certain interpretation of what the central heartbreak of the story is. Mark Boal, the movie’s screenwriter, has stated in an interview, “It was very clear to me that [Larry] had a committed life as an artist prior to what happened at the Algiers. He’s kind of on this rocket ship to fame and fortune and then this night completely derailed his life. I remember being really moved by that derailment of a life and how quickly things changed and how irrevocably they changed for him. So I wanted to write about this man and what happened to him and I branched out from there and met a few other people.” Thus, for Boal, while the racism depicted in the movie is important, the heart of the movie lies with the irreversible change of someone’s life as a consequence of an unexpected calamity. Whatever interpretation audiences adopt, what is clear is the amount of research the Boal engaged in for the project. Police document trails and first-person accounts are just some of the sources that Boal has used to craft a fine screenplay with sensitivity and authenticity dripping from its pages. It is no wonder that Bigelow had teamed up with Boal to turn such literature into an engaging motion picture, since they had in the past collaborated in order to make other movies, such as The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012, which would also undoubtedly have required very thorough research. Each character of the picture, therefore, could not feel any more real than they do following Boal’s efforts.
While it is far too early to tell if Detroit will win any awards, one would not be surprised over any nominations. Regardless, Detroit is one of the best films of the year so far. Returning to the opening examination, people might eventually ignore real racism, sexism, or homophobia if people use such terms simply to describe everything that they do not like. In this case, people might be reluctant to see what they perceive to be overly didactic picture seeking to make innocent people feel racist and guilty as a collective over the sins of their ancestors, which, in the long run, is far from productive. Detroit emerges from the rubble of fierce debate as a fantastic film with a story of how people overcome unanticipated disaster at its core. Yet, the movie for many may go further by providing a necessary and level-headed reminder of historical mistakes, which does not offer any life-changing answers to past or present issues but at the very least, adds fuel to a continued search for constructive solutions to serious present-day societal dilemmas.
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