Bigelow's Detroit a micro horror movie amid a mass race riot

By Jim Slotek

It may speak to the U.S.’s own two solitudes that 1967 is remembered (mainly by whites) for The Summer of Love. As we’re reminded in Kathryn Bigelow’s disturbing Detroit, it was also the summer that cities burned.

Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s simply-structured urban horror story is their most harrowing work together. Yes, even more harrowing than watching a guy defuse bombs in Iraq in The Hurt Locker.

These are not bombs, but violent racial standoffs with guns. And they are as often ignited by the police who are there ostensibly to defuse them.

John Boyega in Detroit: The face of trust-in-authority crumbling

John Boyega in Detroit: The face of trust-in-authority crumbling

Detroit has a history-lesson opening (which uses crude drawings to depict the post-war “white flight” to the suburbs, the birth of segregated neighbourhoods in Northern cities), frequent use of newsreels and an opening dramatization of the raid of a black after-hours speakeasy that was the putative spark in the Detroit riots.

But the film quickly becomes almost play-like in its focus on a single, claustrophobic and deadly event.

That would be the police lockdown of the Algiers Motel (from where a gunshot was said to have been fired) where the guests were lined up and violently interrogated – leading ultimately to the shooting of three black men. There was a trial. I won’t say how it turned out, but again, this was 1967.

Against the backdrop of rioting that has become almost an American ritual in a half-century since, Detroit tells the story of a handful of the actual people who had the bad luck to end up in that motel on that night.

Chief among them are Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard who sees his job as keeping the peace – to the extent that he’s defused situations between police and black youth during the riots, brought police coffee and stoically refused to react to the name “Tom,” and Larry (Algee Smith), the leader of a wannabe Motown group and his pal Fred (Jacob Latimore) who have met up with a couple of fun-seeking white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever). Obviously, that does not bode well.

And there’s an ex-Marine (Anthony Mackie), whose service record only seems to provoke the increasingly hysterical behavior of the uniformed captors, whose determination to find a gun – any gun – reaches levels of horror-movie insanity.

For the record, the officers are not blankly portrayed as monsters. In fact, the actions of a couple are key to the eventual survival of some of the Algiers Motel captives.

But Will Poulter (The Revenant) plays one scary psycho-in-uniform, with officers under his command who, conflicted or not, follow his lead.

Indeed, as the riots commence (and before the Algiers Motel becomes a low-rent interrogation room/torture chamber), we are thrown a curveball, when we hear him in a police car opining that, “we are letting these people down,” a liberal-sounding sentiment that is followed by him shooting a fleeing looter in the back (pre-cementing his loose-cannnon reputation with his commanding officers).

Ultimately, Boyega’s character seems to be the conscience of the film, initially saying all the things people reflexively say about rioters, and accepting authority as something that smart people obey unquestioningly. His arc is written on his face as he watches authority act as badly as the bad guys he thinks he's guarding against.

Jim Slotek

Jim Slotek is a former Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special (the NHL Awards). Prior to the Sun, he worked at the Ottawa Citizen as an entertainment reporter.