The film is set in 1967 during the Detroit Riots and focuses specifically on events that transpired at the Algiers Hotel. It is an ensemble piece, telling the tales of several different characters and how their lives changed at the Algiers. A prank during the riots escalates into a horrifying situation when Detroit Police, Michigan State Police, and National Guardsmen converge on the Algiers Hotel and the mostly African-American clientele staying there. When the racist Detroit cops begins brutalizing the patrons as they question them, the situation goes from bad to worse.
Detroit is a tough watch. It’s a great film, but it is definitely difficult to witness the brutality of the police. However, it is something that everyone needs to see. Bigelow does a fantastic job at ratcheting up the tension throughout the film, though the movie is a little too long, especially with the film’s epilogue. Bigelow and Boal also do a nice job in setting up the history of the racial strife gripping not only Detroit, but other cities across the nation at that time. They really set the stage for the audience to jump right in to the drama. Although the final product is compiled from accounts of those who lived through it, the story is fleshed out through extrapolation. So, some things that happen don’t make a whole lot of narrative sense. Of course, it’s hard to tell what’s fictionalized and what’s true, so it’s difficult to say where cuts could have been made. Sadly, the film also reflects the current state of our society where it seems like every week there’s a new story of police brutality and the treatment of African-Americans as second class citizens. For those who don’t live with that constant anxiety, Detroit is truly an eye-opening experience.
The cast is brilliant, though there is no true lead character. John Boyega is very good as Dismukes, a security guard that gets wrapped up in the drama. My biggest issue with his character, though, is that he only really serves as a witness to the proceedings without really driving any of the action. Algee Smith plays singer Larry, who is trying to break into Motown and is probably the closest thing to a main character here. Smith does great work here going from the high of performing to the horror of dealing with racist cops. Anthony Mackie is also good as Greene, a soldier home from Vietnam, who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jason Mitchell continues his fine work of late as Carl, the man who kicks off the whole Algiers incident, while Hannah Murray surprises and is almost unrecognizable from her role as Gilly on Game of Thrones. However, the real star—for good or ill—is Will Poulter as Krauss, the ringleader of the Detroit cops. Poulter is absolutely terrifying as the unhinged cop and it’s easy to see why he was originally cast as Pennywise in the upcoming IT, before having to drop out when that film’s production date was pushed back.
Overall, while Detroit is not a perfect film, it is definitely one that needs to be seen. The cast does a spectacular job dealing with the difficult material and really makes the audience feel the fear and anxiety of dealing with an intolerable and dangerous situation.