"Detroit" is one of the best films I've seen in quite a while. I was truly moved. It's a grow-up film for grown-ups, of which we have a great paucity these days. (Foul language, "mature themes," our favorite seasoned actors regurgitating ossified Hollywood ideologies [wink, wink] does not a grown-up film make. In fact, it's the perfect recipe for an immature film.) The name of the game with "Detroit" is nuance, nuance, nuance.
Everything about this film is Oscar worthy. The acting, writing and cinematography are over the moon. Director Kathryn Bigelow ("Zero Dark Thirty," "Hurt Locker") is a genius here. I have not heard much Oscar buzz or much buzz at all about "Detroit." This is a shame and I wonder if it isn't because the film is basically a bunch of unknowns. I, for one, don't go to the theater to see my favorite actors (and I thought there was a trend to that day being over!)--I go to see good acting and a good story well executed. Detroit is all of these and more.
NUANCE, NUANCE, NUANCE
Set in 1967 during the Detroit riots, we are plunged intimately into the lives of a loose collection of fated young people: several young black men, two young white women, and a host of law enforcement: city police, state police and national guard. Before you think this might be a simplistic #BlackLivesMatter propaganda piece, it is not. The lines are not clearly drawn between white-bad/black-good, and it's not police-bad, either. This is about each individual in the drama choosing their "side," choosing their attitudes and actions. There are devilish cops and compassionate cops and cops with a conscience. There are black looters and black peacekeepers and black heroes. As with all gatherings of human beings, it's a mixed bag in "Detroit."
The film opens with a trigger-happy young white cop who is not just banally racist, he's also something of a psychopath. We get the sense that he really has no regard for human life whatsoever, especially that of black people. Somehow, in his estimation, their lives just aren't worth that much. Adding to the already volatile situation in Detroit (and other major U.S. cities) is the fact that some Vietnam vets have gone into law enforcement with a kind of full-combat mentality.
YOUNG MOTOWNERS WITH ONE FOOT IN THEIR GRAVE
A Motown singing group of talented young black men hoping to get a record deal find themselves at a motel after a show. They pick up two young white women and some more young black men join the party. Foolishly deciding to mess with the jumpy lawmen outside, one of the men shoots a toy (starter) pistol out the window in their direction. (Detroit was already rife with real snipers aiming at police.) The night then becomes a torturous nightmare as Officer "Trigger" comes to the motel to investigate.
Officer Trigger holds sway over his two fellow cops (both as young as he is), and the older law enforcement coming in contact with the unorthodox situation commit the grave sin of omission and not wanting to "get involved."
One young black man is the real hero in my book. He makes an incredibly courageous decision and action. It's almost glossed over in the film--but it haunts. See if you know what I'm talking about.
There's a real 60's feel, with many general elements of the day feeding into our specific story: Is nonviolence the way for Black America?; America was at war without (Vietnam) and within (Civil Rights); the times they were a-changin' with the Sexual Revolution and young people breaking down color lines and so many traditions of the past; young Americans wanted to figure out life for themselves, to experience everything, to get rid of social stratification, to get to know their peers--regardless of their backgrounds.
"Riveting" truly fits this story. It's almost like an action film. The cinematography never leaves the thick of things and we are constantly seeing what each characters sees. We are inside the house, hands against the wall, being interrogated. But we are also the young cops whose bullying went too far--now what do they do? This is an edge-of-the-seat experience. What will happen? Is someone going to get killed? What must one do to stay alive? We are in agony over these fine young men--full of hopes and dreams--whom we were just getting to know and love. (Incidentally, one minute of "Detroit" is far, far more nerve-wracking and tense than thirty minutes of "Dunkirk.")
The film also gives us a lengthy aftermath of the horrifying incident. This would have been a rare move for more formulaic filmmakers, but it's a brilliant, needed and effective part of the full story.
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE
For white people who have no idea what it feels like to be a black man (young or otherwise) in a tense situation with a white racist in a position of power (or to be a woman or anyone else in a situation where you are powerless against an aggressor)...you will.
If you're wondering--yes, this is based on a true story.
"Detroit" is not a feel good film. And yet, it's not a feel bad film, either. I was left with a sense of hope, even though, as comedian and activist Dick Gregory said before his recent death: After all we've accomplished, we're still dealing with the same problems.
We need accountability, to keep communicating, keep dialoguing, keep solving problems, keep trying to change minds and hearts, keep reaching out, and keep telling stories like "Detroit."
--It's often hard to tell the actual historical footage from present day footage.
--There's a very interesting character of an upstanding young black man, Dismukes (John Boyega), who's a security guard and a witness to the evening's events. He's heartbreakingly naive in his thinking that keeping rules and keeping your head down will keep you alive, that honesty will win the day, that the system in 1967 will work for black people and there will be justice in the end. This actor's face (frequently played on by the camera) is like a silent Greek chorus, telling us the whole story. Magnificent.
--This is a film about men, power, rule of law.