When a script is based on a true story or actual events, separating the truth from dramatisation is up to viewer discretion. This is the case with Detroit.
Detroit is directed by Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow and written for the screen by her frequent collaborator Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty).
The script is based on incidents that occurred at the Algiers Motel amidst the race riots in Detroit, Michigan 1967.
Bigelow and Boal skilfully recreate a pressure cooker docu-drama style narrative which splices images, sounds and videos of the riots and the reaction by law enforcement, in much the same way Argo was filmed.
After a raid at an unlicensed club, tensions escalate when a bottle is thrown at a police officer. This sparks rioting and looting, which results in the National Guard being called in to quell the unrest.
A shocking scene near the start signals the intent of the filmmakers on showing the kind of environment that was prevalent back in that era. An unarmed black man is busy looting a convenience store and is chased after and shot in the back by police officer Phillip Kraus (Will Poulter), mortally wounding the man.
The story eventually settles down and centres on the Algiers Motel. It is told through three viewpoints. Security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), and the aforementioned Kraus and his cop buddies.
A guest at the motel, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) decides to have some fun and fire a starter pistol at a group of National Guardsmen, including Dismukes.
The local police are alerted about sniper fire and they converge on the motel along with the National Guard and Dismukes.
Several guests are rounded up.
The Key Players
These include Larry and Fred, two white girls from Ohio, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), along with Vietnam War Veteran Greene (Anthony Mackie, Falcon in The Avengers).
They are forced faced first against a wall and are interrogated while the search for a weapon begins. This is pretty much the guts of the plot: the cops use brutal interrogation techniques for someone to give up the weapon and the shooter.
Kraus and his friends are particularly incensed at discovering two white girls hanging out with black people, and express their feelings by targeting and harassing the women.
Bigelow and Boal did a great job of getting my pulse up and maintaining the adrenalin rush by showcasing Kraus’ “enhanced” interrogation tactics.
As a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit devotee, I couldn’t help but be outraged at how the cop characters went about their business.
I did feel a small (it was miniscule) twinge of sympathy for Dismukes as he could only stand by while trying to keep everyone around him alive and safe.
The shocking actions of the Detroit police were written to elicit a response from the audience, which they got at my viewing – so much so that an audience member shushed someone!
The baby faced Poulter conveys a calm menacing presence at the start of the interrogations, but slowly loses control as the lack of a weapon continues to plague the impromptu investigation.
He feels the pressure, and so did I.
It was an eye opening experience seeing the treatment being dished out by those who were supposed to serve and protect.
As with most things that are evil on screen, I wanted the karma bus to hit Kraus and his cohorts. I wanted a cathartic release from the pressure cooker environment. But it never arrived. There was no cathartic release; there was no good besting evil.
There really wasn’t a chance to gain an understanding of what motivated Kraus to act the way he did. This is primarily due to a lack of character development of the “bad guys”.
Those caught up in the interrogation at Algiers had their backstories. I understood what was at stake for the victims. Larry had his dreams about being a professional singer with “The Dramatics”; Dismukes had family that would be wanting him to come back home.
Kraus’s character development started and ended with him shooting a fleeing un-armed man in the back.
This leads us to the main issues in terms of “Based on a True Story” narrative. What’s real and what’s dramatised/artistic licence?
For instance the Phillip Kraus character never existed and the two girls from Ohio were both strip searched. Just how truthful were the atrocities on screen compared to what happened at the Algiers Motel?
There are also a couple of plot holes. The detective that instigated the raid who I thought was going to play a prominent role in the narrative didn’t make another appearance. Those being interrogated (including those who witnessed the starter pistol prank) never told the police about the starter pistol.
And most significant of all, the subplot of Kraus’ first shooting victim was never resolved.
If I were to concentrate on the claustrophobic confines of the Algiers Motel, then Detroit is given a pass mark. However, I wanted more.
I wanted more information about the cops who trampled the civil liberties of the guests at the Algiers. Who were these people? Why did they act the way they did?
I also felt the courtroom scenes lacked the intensity required to match the horror that happened at the motel.
It was a bit of let down as the film wound down to its historically accurate conclusion (complete with summary for each key character). Which was probably the point. How can the people who perpetuated such evil get away it?
Bigelow said the story needed to be told. The trouble is, I felt only a part of the story was explained. The rest of it, I had to Google.
If you want to feel angry, then this is the movie for you. Otherwise you can watch it on a streaming service at home and feel free to yell at the TV without anyone shushing you.
PS: Regardless how good the actual film is, it’s still really important. My colleague Ethan talks in length about this here.