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Maybe the best movie you probably won’t watch this year (a Detroit review)

So I guess I made a slight miscalculation. From the trailers alone, I thought it was clear that people would be flocking to see Detroit this weekend but that no one would give Kidnap a chance. And while certainly, neither of them is going anywhere near blockbuster status, initial box office reports show that the exact opposite is happening; Kidnap is certainly going to beat Detroit at the box office this weekend. So I’ve been trying to process that. It’s certainly a good thing people are supporting a diversity casting choice in genre fiction (though again, it’s not like she’s lighting the world on fire… just exceeding expectations) but at the end of the day, as I said in my review of that, it’s still not actually a good movie.

So let me make it clear. I don’t just want people watching movies with minorities in them. It’d also be great if people went out to see movies with minorities that were good.

Detroit is a good movie. In fact it’s a really good movie. It is a movie that makes a definitive and poignant statement about not only the state of racism in 1967, but also the world we live in today, fifty years later. It is a good movie… an important movie. But most people probably won’t go to see it, because DAMN is it hard to watch.

Like SO hard to watch. If you see this movie you are not going to have fun. It is negative. It is depressing. You will leave and not feel good about humanity at all. GO SEE IT ANYWAY!

In the comments of my review on War for the Planet of the Apes, I was discussing how I pick the ratings for for films with my friend Max. It’s really hard to boil down a film to just a single number. My friend Mike once said that I should just stop doing it because he’s more interested in the article I write about the film than the number anyway. But I don’t think things are that simple. At the end of the day I need to be able to say “should a random person see this movie?” That comes down to writing, directing, cinematography, acting, special effects, cultural relevance, and a ton of other factors including “fun”.

This movie has great writing, directing and acting. It really has no special effects that are meaningful in any real way. The cinematography is kind of a mixed bag. Kathryn Bigelow has a very specific aesthetic that is kind of intimate and in your face but not for everyone. There is a lot of chaos in it that makes it feel very frenzied and sometimes hard to understand. To me this serves the story very well. The camerawork is visceral and often uncomfortable, which is kind of what the film wants you to feel. What the film is missing is fun. And that’s a good thing.

This movie is NOT FUN. It is SOOOOO NOT FUN!!! But again… GO SEE IT ANYWAY! Because what this movie has above all else is cultural relevance.

Detroit is the story of the Algiers Motel Incident during the 12th Street Riots in Detroit in 1967. Like Bigelow’s other recent critically acclaimed films (Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), this is a gritty and in your face war story that puts you into the moment as seen through Bigelow’s eyes. It is artistic and thought provoking and it is so immediate that it at times makes you feel very uneasy. It is a war story, that moves the violence out of the Middle East and into America. And it is just as intense, if not more so.

The theater I saw it in last night did not have a lot of people. Maybe thirty or so? And I was kind of annoyed before the film started because I was worried that the couple behind me who literally talked all the way through EVERY SINGLE TRAILER would ruin the film for me. Not so. Because the second the movie started there was absolute silence. Every single person in the audience, no matter their age, gender or race (and I looked around, all of this ran the gambit) was completely immersed from the second the film started. And as it ended and the credits rolled, people got up and filed out of the theater in absolute silence. It was almost like a funeral.

And that’s how it should have been. For those who don’t know the story of the Algiers shootings, a lot of it is unsolved. There are conflicting reports of what happened. But at the end of the day, three black men were dead and the three white police officers and one black security guard who were accused of their murder were exonerated. Detroit doesn’t allow any ambiguity. To Bigelow, the white cops are just the villains here. One of the strongest performances in the film is by Will Poulter, as Officer Phillip Krauss. Poulter portrays Krauss as evil to the point of sociopathy. He is the living embodiment of racial injustice in law enforcement. But the performance is strong enough that he never seems forced or unrealistic. He is simply vile. Similarly, John Boyega is Melvin Dismukes, the black security guard. Here we see a sympathetic character who would otherwise be the hero of the story, but is caught up in a situation that he simply can’t control because systemic racism will not allow anything more to happen. The whole thing is extremely heavy handed and if you were inclined to not believe in racial discrimination in law enforcement you might be inclined to say it was ridiculous.

Not one person leaving the theater did.

And that’s the magic of what Bigelow has done here. The film isn’t really about The Algiers Incident. It is a film about #BlackLivesMatter. What Bigelow has done here is depict a historic event that is almost impossible to argue the tragic and evil nature of to force the audience to draw a parallel to more recent and controversial events like Ferguson. in a world where so many want to argue that we live in a post-racial society, Bigelow is forcing the viewers to say “are we really any different than what we were here?” The gut reaction of some viewers will be to say “yes we are. This is different because Krauss was one bad cop. He wasn’t like the good cops now who are trying to serve and protect.” But the movie sort of subtly pushes the viewer to see that as unapologetically evil as he is, in the point of reference for that cultural moment,  And to the people on the business end of the shotgun? They’re evil no matter what.

And the movie sort of makes it impossible to miss that.

Not every movie should be fun. Everyone left the theater suitably depressed and morose. And that’s probably a good thing. It’s a shame that Bigelow probably to 113 won’t live to make a movie called Ferguson in 2064 to compare to whatever racial tragedy is recent in that time. And it’s a shame that someone will still need to.

Go see this movie… not because you want to. Because you need to.

★★★★☆ (4 out of 5 stars)

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