*THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE FILM ‘DETROIT’*
When the movie ‘Detroit’ was announced, there were three key elements of appeal. Firstly, it was to be about the Detroit Riots, an era that had yet to be put to film. Secondly, it was to be directed by Kathryn Bigelow, and finally, it would be starring John Boyega, a current rising star in the film industry.
While Bigelow is a well established and extremely talented director, important historical riots have not been well documented in the past. Take ‘Stonewall,’ for example, a whitewashed, sensationalized disappointment. So I felt the same apprehension about ‘Detroit.’ How could they capture the tension that had been brewing over decades and the institutional racism that spawned because of it?
The advert, however, showed that the film had clear promise. With real footage and images from the incidents and a plot that seemed to involve Boyega’s character being caught between protecting his fellow black men and earning the respect of his fellow police officers. This dynamic would reveal the prejudices within the police force, as well as give the audience a moral dilemma to empathize with. This plot, however, never comes to fruition. In fact, Boyega is not even the main character of ‘Detroit.’
Though he may be front and center in all the posters and adverts, the seeming center point of the trailers, Boyega’s character, Dismukes, is not the protagonist, despite being in almost every scene of the film. It is only by the few times that other characters interact with him that we gain insight into his character. He is possibly the most passive character ever put to film.
At first, his character is well established; a young black man who has to work two jobs, one of which is a night security guard at a grocery store while the looting occurs. So, he is not even a police officer as the trailer suggests. We see him trying to keep the peace in the first act, but as the driving incident of the film occurs, the “shooting” at the Algiers Hotel, his character becomes obsolete. He follows dumbly from room to room, simply witnessing what is going on and never once driving the plot forward. The pivotal moment in the trailer, in which he tells another black man to “survive the night,” is nothing but a throw away line that bares no meaning once you find out he doesn’t even know the man — the moment does not hold at all.
As the third act arrives, it seems as though the plot is now turning to focus on Dismukes. Spoiler alert: it does not. He continues to be nothing but a spectator, with Boyega doing all he can to convey emotion from the sidelines. His performance is not disappointing, in fact, it is amazing for what little he has. But he is overshadowed by Will Poulter, whose consistent and layered depiction of a Detroit police officer is very impressive.
And that brings us to the next fault of the film. While the trailer appears to establish sympathy for the black population of Detroit and their reasons for rioting and condemn the actions of the police, the film does no such thing.
The looting begins with a jovial call of “Hey, watch this,” as they throw a brick at the wall of the shop. It is not out of anger, but opportunistic. The rioters seem foolish, unreasonable, seen previously lavishing in an illegal bar. When the first black man is fatally shot in the Algiers Hotel, the audience do not feel the pain and loss for him as his character was previously crude; his actions that lead up to his death are just down right stupid. As they are abused by the police, each character continues to make questionable decisions with no real motivation.
The police brutality, as shown in the film, is a result of three rogue police officers with their own personal prejudices driving the incidents, rather than the institution that created these men. Though Detroit was a relatively progressive city, the issue of police violence against black people was massive and the incident at the Algiers should have been shown in context of that.
The film that I was promised from the trailer was tense, heartbreaking, true to the events and starring John Boyega. Instead, what was delivered was slow and almost obtuse, with a policeman beating a black man with a baton as merely set dressing. As the movie professes at the end, the incident at the Algiers was not documented, and the film had been fictionalized from eye witness accounts. If this was the case, they could have used this creative freedom to make it far more compelling and not waste Boyega’s talent.