'Detroit': Kathryn Bigelow's Latest 'Gripping Enactment'

Aug 18, 2017

Over five days during the summer of 1967, rioting and civil unrest tore apart the city of Detroit, Michigan. The riots left 43 people dead, thousands injured, and more than 2,000 businesses burned or looted.

Detroit, a new film by Kathryn Bigelow, tells the story of the unrest, but in particular the events that transpired at the Algiers Motel. That’s where three young African American men were murdered by police and nine other people, seven black men and two white women, endured brutal beatings.

This film is not your typical feel-good summer flick, as film critic Dave Luhrssen can attest. Bigelow is known for films such as Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, and the intensity and pacing of Detroit is not dissimilar to her war films.

"I think that (Bigelow) depicted this very viscerally, very clearly. The sense of confinement, the sense of frustration, the sense of wanting to break down the walls I think was very clearly felt," he says.

While the film focuses on one particular event of the Detroit riots, it does not focus on one particular star - John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Hannah Murray,  Anthony Mackie, and over a dozen others are all featured.

John Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes. He is just one of many actors in the "Detroit" ensemble depicting real-life people and the difficult situations they face.
Credit DETROIT Moive

"I think that the movie succeeds at providing us with a range of personality types realistically drawn," notes Luhrssen. "I'm glad that there wasn't one star figure because that would be a very Hollywood cliche thing...and there really wasn't a person in reality in the Detroit upheaval who was the focal point of attention. It involved thousands of people and the movie does get that across."

The movie also includes newscasts from the time, making some scenes more like viewing a documentary than feature, but Luhrssen says, "it works very well as a part of intensifying the sense of reality of the experience."

He notes that the themes and issues presented, unfortunately, remain timeless. 

Luhrssen recalls experiencing similar riots in Milwaukee: "At roughly the same time when the Detroit upheaval took place there was rioting or rebellion, if you will, in Milwaukee on a smaller scale. Fewer deaths, less destruction, but Milwaukee was a smaller city. So I have memories of seeing smoke on the eastern horizon, the National Guard troops with guns driving in Jeeps through the streets and so on. It was a time of great tension and upheaval."

If anyone cares about these issues to any degree, he says, they should make the effort to see the film - no matter how uncomfortable it may make them.

"I think that all of us should be prepared to look out the window and see some of the bad things that are going on, that have gone on, to measure a movie about bad events that happened 50 years ago against what's going on today and deciding to what degree have we made progress from that time? What still needs to be done?" he asks.

"So I think that if you have concern about these things, you should go see this movie, and if you really want to entirely shut out the world, you're not going to enjoy it anyway."