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Movie Review

Racial tension simmered on the streets of Detroit the summer of 1967. But when police raid an unlicensed bar on 12th Street the night of July 23, the arrests of African-Americans—three vans full of people—turns up the heat, and the conflict boils over.

Bricks and stones are hurled first. Then Molotov cocktails. Angry protests escalate into a full-scale riot. Detroit burns. Michigan Governor George Romney calls in the national guard to stem the rage engulfing the city. Soon tanks patrol Detroit's boulevards like an occupying army.

Amid that volatility, however, pockets of normalcy—or perhaps pockets of escape—can still be found. At a downtown theater, Martha and the Vandellas sing. An aspiring group of teens known as The Dramatics waits in the wings for their turn to perform, itching to impress Motown Records execs.

They never get the chance: The riot prompts the theater owners to close it, mid-performance, as they urge everyone to get home safely and quickly.

Easier said than done.

Fleeing the theater, The Dramatics' frontman, Larry, and the group's young manager, Fred, find that police patrols have made it impossible for the teens to get home after curfew. They take refuge in the nearby Algiers Motel, where they hope to ride out the turbulence until the next morning.

They meet two young white girls, Karen and Julie, who take them back to meet some other black teens holed up at the Algiers. One of them, Carl, stages a dramatic re-enactment of what it's like to be black and be confronted by a white police officer. The impromptu skit involves a starter gun. It's not a real firearm, but it looks and sounds like one.

And when Carl impulsively and jokingly fires it out the window to scare National Guard troops stationed a couple of streets over, the law of unintended consequences is set in motion.

Three Detroit police officers descend upon the Algiers bent on finding the shooter. And the police officer in charge, a man named Krauss, harbors deep racial animus. A round-up of everyone in that section of the hotel devolves into a brutal, manipulative interrogation. Law, order and justice are usurped by a racist, unhinged police officer's brutal bloodlust in a moment where he holds the power of life and death.

By the end of the night, three young men will be dead.

Positive Elements

Detroit dramatizes real events that occurred at the Algiers Motel the night of July 25, 1967. There is little here that can be called positive in the way we normally use that descriptor, as almost everything that occurs is horrifically unjust. What director Kathryn Bigelow (who also helmed The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), attempts to do, however, is to help viewers see the reality of racism during that volatile time.

The value of such a film—as was true with 12 Years a Slave and Schindler's List—is in helping those who view it to better understand what many victims of injustice and police brutality have experienced.

Officer Krauss is depicted as demented and wicked, driven to torture and murder by his hatred of black people. Again, this is hardly positive; but Bigelow wants us to understand that such people existed then (and, it's suggested, still exist today). The film ends with the trial of Krauss and his two fellow officers, and all are declared "not guilty" for their crimes—an outcome that underscores how much many African-Americans feel that the legal deck is stacked against them. [Spoiler Warning] The film ends with the trial of Krauss and his two fellow officers, and all are declared "not guilty" for their crimes—an outcome that underscores how much many African-Americans feel that the legal deck is stacked against them.

To Bigelow's credit, Krauss's commanding officer is determined to charge him and his fellow officers for murder. Another police officer treats one of Krauss's victims with compassion and tenderness. In this sense, Detroit tries to walk a tightrope between depicting bad cops while still telling us there are truly good ones out there, too.

There are no real heroes here. But a security guard named Dismukes comes closest. He inserts himself in a difficult situation, trying as best he can to save lives. But despite his sterling character and determination to do the right thing, Dismukes is depicted as powerless to stop anything. Worse, investigators later try to pin the crime on him, and Dismukes finds himself in jail. As the doors close on his cell, his hands shake and weeping racks his body. It's a powerful scene that conveys the message that a man who strives to do everything right can still find himself unjustly accused and imprisoned because of his skin color.

Spiritual Content

At one point, Krauss bizarrely orders his captives to start praying, which they do—earnestly. We hear Jesus' name as well amid the captives' desperate prayers.

After the ordeal, Larry refuses to return to being the lead singer of The Dramatics. Instead, he takes a job as a choir director at a local church. We hear a gospel song that has the phrase, "Get up, Jesus!"

The Roots' song "It Ain't Fair" plays during the closing credits. We hear these lyrics: "I pray the Lord their souls to keep/Because wolves disguised as sheep patrol our streets, and we all know that what you sow, you shall reap." And: "Some people say, 'Let Jesus take the wheel'/Others say, 'Thou shall not kill'/But they don't tell religion ain't gon' pay my bills/We've come so far yet here we are/Ruthless God, presumed inferior/We scared o y'all."

Sexual Content

Julie and Karen talk about sexual freedom and joke about being "prostitutes." They're open to sexual encounters, but it's not clear whether any of those have happened yet. Later, we see one of the young women passionately kissing a guy.

When Krauss and his deputies arrive, they are enraged by the young women being with black men. In extraordinarily crude terms, they accuse the women of having sex with the black men, and they wonder why they aren't with white men. Later, Krauss accuses them of being prostitutes and suggests that one of the black men is their pimp.

In a tense verbal confrontation with the police officers, one of the young women has her dress torn nearly completely off. We briefly glimpse her topless before she covers herself.

Violent Content

Early scenes depict the start of the riot, with angry Detroit residents assailing police by throwing various objects at them. By riot's end, Detroit looks like a bombed-out, burned-up war zone.

After the National Guard begins policing the streets with tanks and platoons of soldiers, there's fear about snipers. A nervous, trigger-happy gunnery officer on an armored vehicle tragically mistakes a little girl looking through her blinds as a sniper and opens fire. The wailing we hear from the broken apartment window afterward indicates that she has been killed.

Krauss and a fellow officer pursue a young man who's robbed a grocery store. Krauss shoots the man twice in the back. We see him lying bleeding under a vehicle, and later learn that he's died. Krauss's supervisor learns of the incident and tells him he intends to press murder charges.

Once Krauss and his men invade the Algiers Motel, things get truly grim. Krauss shoots a fleeing man in the back, killing him. Much of the movie then involves a lengthy, ongoing interrogation as Krauss attempts to get someone to confess where the gun is and who shot it. Krauss grows more agitated and threatening when no one confesses. Various people are threatened and beaten badly, including being cold cocked in the head with guns; almost all are bleeding from facial wounds eventually. One man, a veteran of the Vietnam War, is savagely hit six or seven times.

Krauss then begins taking them one by one into another room, where he pretends to shoot them (and then tells them to stay quiet, which two of them do.) One of Krauss's own men, however, doesn't realize that these people aren't actually being killed. "You haven't killed a n-gger yet," Krauss tells him. And then the officer does indeed shoot his and kill his victim in the back room. When he comes out, he says, "I didn't think I could do it, but I did it."

Krauss eventually agrees to let everyone go if they'll swear to him that they won't talk. One of the young men, however, refuses to say what Krauss is looking for, and Krauss shoots him three times, killing him.

We see apparently real police photos of the dead bodies at the Algiers Motel. Elsewhere, Detroit residents attack a group of firefighters trying to douse a fire.

Crude or Profane Language

About 75 f-words (including 15 paired with "mother"). More than 20 s-words. God's name is misused 15 times (including at least 8 pairings with "d--n"). Jesus' name is abused three times. White police officers use the slur "n-gger" seven times. Blacks call white officers "crackers" and "pigs." Other vulgarities include "a--," "a--hole," "d--n" and "h---." A woman is called a "slut." We see one crude hand gesture.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Characters are shown smoking and drinking intermittently throughout the film. One person smokes what looks to be a marijuana joint. There's a conversation about jazz great John Coltrane's heroin addiction.

Other Negative Elements

Krauss places a knife by the body of one of the men he killed, trying to make his murder look like self-defense. Similarly, he tries to bait another person into attacking him in order to kill him, which would give him an excuse to kill the man.

A cowardly National Guard commander instructs his troops to leave Krauss and his fellow officers with those they're interrogating. "I don't want to get involved in civil rights case with the Michigan State Police," he rationalizes.

We repeatedly see Detroit residents breaking windows and looting stores. Someone vomits.

Conclusion

Director Katheryn Bigelow excels at telling hard stories. She did so with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, and she's done so again with this historical drama. Detroit delivers an unblinking portrait of unhinged racism. This movie's antagonist, Officer Krauss, is not merely a bad cop or someone who's made a terrible judgment call. He's depicted as a man full of hateful wickedness, someone for whom the term evil seems appropriate.

Because of that, this film at times feels more like a horror movie than it does a historical drama. Krauss is a leering, violent villain who taunts, tortures and murders. The fact that this story is based upon testimony of those who survived the Algiers Motel affair makes it all the more horrific.

Detroit wades into a cultural climate 50 years later in which issues of racism and police brutality are still relevant. The portrayal of police here isn't uniformly bad: There are bad cops, good cops and cowardly cops, too. That said, I suspect this story will resonate more with those who believe this kind of racism and police violence is still as epidemic today as Detroit suggests it was five decades ago. It could well spark much needed conversation. But I suspect it could spark controversy, too.

Detroit is a hard, painful movie to watch. It pulls no punches—literally or metaphorically. And the film's conclusion only amplifies the sense of horror and despair it devastatingly depicts.

I think Detroit is an serious film about an issue that still divides our country. But it is probably the hardest two hours and 23 minutes I've spent in a theater recently.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults

Credits

Rating

R

Readability Age Range

Genre

Drama

Author

Cast

John Boyega as Dismukes; Algee Smith as Larry; Jacob Latimore as Fred; Jason Mitchell as Carl; Will Poulter as Krauss; Hannah Murray as Julie; Kaitlyn Dever as Karen; Jack Reynor as Demens; Ben O'Toole as Flynn; John Krasinsk as Attorney Auerbach; Anthony Mackie as Greene; Nathan Davis Jr. as Aubrey; Peyton 'Alex' Smith as Lee; Malcolm David Kelley as Michael; Joseph David-Jones as Morris

Director

Kathryn Bigelow ( )

Distributor

Annapurna Pictures

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

July 28, 2017

On Video

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Adam R. Holz

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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