Scene & Heard: ‘Detroit’ is always good, sometimes very good, but never great

Detroit Police Officers attempt to keep order on the streets during the 12th Street Riots of 1967 in “Detroit.” (Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

By Jared Huizenga – Contributing Writer

In the summer of 1967, many of the streets of inner city Detroit looked like a warzone and were patrolled as such. Fifty years later, in a climate that sometimes seems comparable, the story of what led the city to such a state and some ramifications of it, have made their way to the big screen.

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” follows the events of the 12th Street Riot of July 1967, which ignited in the wake of a police raid on an illegal, after-hours bar, and reached its shameful climax during an incident at the Algiers Motel.

Will Poulter stars as Officer Krauss in Kathryn Bigalow’s “Detroit.” (Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

That incident, which left three young African American men dead and nine other people beaten at the hands of Detroit police officers, is at the center of the film.

As I watched the film, the thought that kept coming to mind was “this is really hard to watch.” And I mean that in a number of different ways.

It’s hard to watch because of the brutality the police officers inflicted on the “suspects” they encountered in the Algiers.

It’s hard to watch because it seems that after 50 years, not nearly enough has changed, making the film as timely and poignant as it would have been had it been made in 1970.

It’s hard to watch because rather than pull the cameras back and allowing the audience to serve as a fly-on-the-wall, she instead puts the cameras – and the viewers – in the middle of the action. This style works for some people, and it serves its purpose in making you feel more in the middle of things, but my preference is to be further removed from the situation.

Finally, it’s hard to watch because aside from a couple of individual performances, the acting is pretty subpar. Of particular note is the performances of Will Poulter as Detroit officer Krauss – a brutal, racist officer who served as the ringleader of the situation; Anthony Mackie as Greene, a former soldier who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time; and Algee Smith as Larry Reed, an aspiring singer and founding member of The Dramatics, whose hopes and dreams took a serious detour that night.

Larry Reed (Algee Smith) takes to the stage after the Detroit riots of 1967 postponed his big break in the music business. (Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

Screenwriter Mark Boal, who worked with Bigalow on “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker,” which he won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for, does a good job of telling the story of how all of the characters – police, victims, bystanders – together at the Algiers, but little beyond that to develop the characters. By the time things wrapped up, I knew I was rooting for Larry and that I hated Krauss, but aside from that I couldn’t remember any other character names, and I was pretty indifferent about how their stories ended up. If they were developed even just a little more – either more positively or more negatively – it would’ve been easy to have a greater reaction to them.

“Detroit” gets bonus points for being timely and poignant, and it’s good throughout, and very good at times. But there’s more than enough holes to keep it from elevating to a level of greatness. It’s a film I believe everyone should see once, but more for its cultural relevance than for its overall quality.

★★★1/2 of ★★★★★

Jared Huizenga is a freelance movie critic. Follow his work at www.facebook.com/JaredMovies.