When director Kathryn Bigelow comes along with a new film people tend to pay attention. The Oscar-winning director of 2009’s The Hurt Locker has risen to prominence making features which are provocative and powerful and reflect the social climate of the time. With her latest, Detroit, Bigelow goes back in time for a history lesson which suggests that society doesn’t learn and tends to make the same mistakes time and again. Like her last film, Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit is a fact-based account of specific event during the 1967 riots which exposed the racism that has been boiling over for ages.

With an ensemble cast which includes John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Jack Reynor, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben O’Toole, John Krasinski and Anthony Mackie, Detroit is a reenactment of the tragic events which took place in the Algiers Motel. This event left 3 black men dead and numerous others beaten, including 7 more black men and 2 white women.

Bigelow approaches the events carefully, and with the help of screenwriter Mark Boal, they piece together that evening as best they can with the information they were able to discover (during the final credits it's revealed that there were multiple accounts of the event which included some gaps and missing portions). Together they crafted a stunning and powerful account which highlights the terror and dread which racism brings. And despite it taking place in 1967 it draws attention to the Detroit police department’s abuse of power, the hypocrisy which has (and still does) occur, and briefly calls attention to flaws in the justice system which seemingly work against people of color. To protect and serve – that much is true. But for whom?

For 143 minutes, Detroit plays out like a horror – innocent citizens are held hostage as the police conduct intimidating interviews in order to find a shooter whom they believe was located at the nearby motel. During the interrogations many shady things take place – one of them being a man who is shot and killed, then an officer plants a weapon on the body. Beatings take place and the threat of more physical abuse is promised (not to mention the verbal abuse which is uttered as easily as one breathes). About an hour of Detroit takes place at the motel, and to watch the events unfold are heartbreaking. Bigelow, by refusing to move from this portion, crafts some of her most emotional work. This portion alone makes for compelling viewing, although I can say it’s far from entertaining. Everything that happened is simply too sad and upsetting to call it entertainment. But Bigelow isn’t interested in entertaining. She wants to convey just how awful racism can be, and of course she's mindful this history lesson is sadly still practiced today. With Detroit, Bigelow has us asking a simple question – haven’t we learned anything? All things considering, we haven’t, and part of what makes Detroit such a tough pill to swallow is that it doesn’t offer any hope.

Sadly, the rest of the film exists mostly as filler which keeps this from being a truly great work. The remaining 90 minutes or so are ultimately cold and empty, and it seems Bigelow and Boal are content to let the Algiers Motel incident fill in the gaps. Performances are solid with Poulter being the most memorable and surprising. He’s come a long way from his comedic work in We’re the Millers and it’s a testament to the range the young actor has.

Detroit, for better or worse, is interesting counterprogramming for the summer. This has more of an Oscar feel to it, so personally this should be released near the end of the year. I don’t think this is Oscar-caliber, though, since there is an emptiness throughout which makes Bigelow’s latest more of a high-priced reenactment than a socio-political conversation starter. Bigelow did a fine job retelling this story, and her talents as a director are unmatched. But considering the subject matter, was she really the right person for this project?

3.5 stars out of 5

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