Detroit Review: A Harrowing, Intense, and Important Film
Detroit is a terrifying film which tells the story the Algiers Motel during the riots in 1960’s Detroit. More than a drama, Detroit’s story is told like a horror film, and its horror comes from its realism. Realism can often be a tricky goal for a movie to aim for, because story sometimes suffers for the sake of realistic outcomes. But here, realism imbues Detroit with horror and intensity. It isn’t a fairy tale, nor is it a summer action flick: it is a brutal experience about police brutality and racial prejudice. Detroit is one of the most important films of the year, as its story reveals the horrors of yesterday and relates them to the injustices of today.
Although many advertisements have marketed Detroit as the story of the riots, after the first ten or twenty minutes, the film does not seriously focus on the rioting. Instead, Detroit chooses to center on a single event for most of its runtime: the violent night at the Algiers Motel. After police believe to hear gunshots coming from the motel, they storm the building and proceed to beat the people inside while trying to find or force a confession from their suspects.
Every actor gives a phenomenal performance in Detroit, but I would argue that what makes this film great is that it doesn’t attempt to soften its depiction of what took place in the motel. Instead, Detroit shows us the raw violence and cruelty of the event, and it is all the better for its reliance on realism.
Realism is often a double-edged sword, because although it can make a story more believable, it can often make it unsatisfying. The structure and techniques of fiction reveal that what often makes fictional stories great, is that they avoid realism. Some of the most iconic modern stories, such as Star Wars and Harry Potter, have happy endings and events that often wouldn’t occur in real-life. Although this makes them less realistic, it can make them more satisfying because it allows those stories to show audiences what they want to see. Detroit may make you want to see justice, it may make you want to see peace, but the film never really shows either.
Unlike Star Wars and Harry Potter, Detroit’s story arguably requires realism to work, because the story it’s telling is real and hasn’t been solved by a fictional hero. The film is bloody and its story is infuriating rather than uplifting or satisfying, but that is what a film about racial injustice requires.
Fortunately, Detroit doesn’t fall into the trap that many ‘realistic’ films fall into, in which the story becomes a chaotic and/or pointless sequence of events that don’t really make up a good movie. This film shows many of its characters and their relations to the rioting before they reach the Algiers Motel, so you can form a connection with the characters before the brutal night begins.
This allows the audience to care about the people on screen beyond the fact that they are being beaten. While most don’t want to see someone endure pain in a film, there is a difference between an audience’s reaction when an extra dies and when a major character dies. The audience responds more when the major character dies because they have formed a connection with that character specifically, so if Detroit hadn’t defined its characters before they police arrived the resulting story wouldn’t have been as powerful.
And Detroit’s story is powerful, and important. The terrifying night in the Algiers Motel may at first seem like a tale from the distant past, but the film’s resolution draws terrifying parallels to modern day policing which must be discussed. Unlike other, admittedly great, films which have entered theaters this summer, Detroit is one of the few I can say needs to be seen.
This film does not offer a fun experience to sit through, but it does offer a moving and relevant story.