Scarce emotional connection bogs down Detroit

click to enlarge John Boyega in Detroit
John Boyega in Detroit
As she so adeptly proved in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow is a master at recreating urban warfare on screen, an ability she uses to great effect in her latest film Detroit, an account of the race riots that plagued the area in the summer of 1967 and one particularly heinous crime that occurred as the city burned. While the period details are spot on, the acting is first-rate and some genuine tension is sustained throughout; what’s missing from the film is a true connection to the characters on both sides of the conflict. Coming off as stereotypes rather than individuals, the script by Mark Boal fails to give us scenes that provide adequate background, instead giving us flashes of their past lives and personal troubles rather than fleshing them out so that an emotional connection can be made between viewer and character.

The flashpoint that began the riots occurred at a club in the early morning of July 23 where a party was being thrown for returning African-American Vietnam veterans. A disturbance is reported and the police arrive and begin emptying the club, only to be met by an angry crowd that’s gathered outside. One impulsive act leads to another, and the result is five days of violence that left 40 dead.

The incident Bigelow uses as the focal point of the film takes place at the Algiers Motel, a dive where a myriad of people have taken refuge to escape the turmoil on the streets. Among those in residence are Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) of the singing group The Dramatics, two young white women (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) eager to join the sexual revolution, a Vietnam vet (Anthony Mackie) looking to be left alone and Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), an impulsive young man who fires a starter pistol at police stationed nearby to quell the rioting. Mistaken for sniper fire, the police, National Guard and state police lay siege to the hotel, ultimately taking the building and holding those they find hostage until the find the shooter.

The bulk of the movie is made up of this extended interrogation led by Krauss (Will Poulter), a racist patrolman who we see early on gun down a looter trying to steal a bag of groceries. He and officers Flynn and Demens (Ben O’Toole and Jack Reynor) interrogate those mentioned above, as well as four others, in an increasingly violent and insulting manner that winds up leaving three dead and the rest irreparably damaged. It’s during this prolonged sequence – at least 45 minutes in length – that the film is at its best as well as its worst. As the officers become desperate to find the supposed sniper and their tactics become more violent, Bigelow masterfully ratchets up the tension, her handheld camera subtly getting closer and closer to the victims in order to create a sense of claustrophobia and a feeling of being trapped.

Our empathy for these men and women is absolute yet I never felt an emotional bond to them. While my ire was raised over the injustices they suffered – which extends to a joke of a trial in which the three officers are brought up on charges – there was little in the way of a connection to the characters. Much like Dunkirk, Detroit is a marvelous technical achievement that fails to give us fully realized characters to care for. Only John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes, a well-meaning security guard caught in the middle of the fray, makes an impact, yet his screen time is criminally short. There’s no question that Bigelow and Boal approached this project with the best of intentions, yet Detroit’s ultimate lack of heart prevents it from making a true impact.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at

For a review of Kidnap, go to the Cinemascoping blog at

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