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2017 was a great year for inventive horror exercises that pushed and reinvented many confines that the genre has to offer. That being said, no film was as viscerally terrifying and haunting as the second act of Detroit, partly because of director Kathryn Bigelow's expected command on tension and suspense, partly because the horrifying events depicted in the film has been a tangible daily fear by people of color in the United States fifty years ago, when said events took place, and are still tragically very much relevant today. Last year was a tumultuous sociopolitical time, to say the least, and even though the year's releases weren't privy to how divided we'd be as a nation while they were in production, they seem to have serendipitously provided a mirror into our current culture.
Jordan Peele's sublime sociological genre exercise Get Out delved into the various complexities of contemporary racism in a clever way that merged its messages with a wholly satisfactory genre exercise. If Get Out is the subtle and layered examination of contemporary race relations, then Detroit is the blunt sledgehammer to the face that some in our society still need in order to wake up to the disturbing facts that many of the problems that exist between law enforcement and people of color are still very much relevant. The film patiently and deftly lays out the facts that surround the horrific incident at The Algiers Motel in Detroit, during the riots of 1967, yet the story could have easily been about Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, etc… and hold the same painful and visceral response.
Bigelow and his The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal split the three acts of the story with surgical precision. The first act does a remarkable job of clearly laying out the racial strife that was going on in Detroit at the time, complete with a quick and effective history lesson that begins the film. The second act is a chamber horror piece, as the terrified mostly black residents of the motel struggle to remain alive through the night after a group of racist police officers terrorize them upon seeing two white girls with this group of black men. The cops' official mission is to investigate the firing of a gun, but it's made immediately clear what the real motivation is. This section is as intense and heartbreaking an experience I had in theatres last year, and that's saying a lot when we're talking about a year that saw the releases of Mother and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
The film was criticized for "dragging on" during its third act after the Algiers incident ends. We've been through a harrowing experience, and we want it to end so we can reenter the comfort of our daily lives. But people who experience such injustice have to face the aftermath where they are rarely ever given the justice that they deserve. In that sense, the seemingly winding down and procedural third act is the most upsetting, since we are given a front row seat to how the mechanics of the system certainly doesn't favor people of color.
Detroit's raw docudrama aesthetic, full of grain and contrast, is delivered beautifully in this 1080p transfer. The colors are vibrant when they need to be, and some of the muted palettes come across in a definitively crisp and clean way.
The DTS-HD 5.1 track really comes alive during the Algiers sequences, making us feel every single gunshot and acts of violence. Bigelow is a director who always takes full advantage of the surround tracks, just listen to the surround mix of Strange Days for proof. This is no exception.
We get a bunch of really short, EPK-style extras here. They are very quick and unsatisfactory as far as the amount of time we'd normally need to dive into Detroit's many complex issues. The film underperformed at the box office, but I still hope that we get another release with more comprehensive extras. Each of the below extras are around two minutes long.
The Truth of Detroit: A quick glance into the film's real history.
The Cast of Detroit: An outline of the film's excellent cast.
The Invasion of Detroit: Another quick history lesson.
The Hope of Detroit: A hopeful take on how things could possibly change.
Detroit - Then and Now: A comparison of the city's culture between 1967 and now.
We also get a Gallery and a Trailer.
Detroit didn't turn out to be cultural gut punch that I hoped it would be when I first watched it at a press screening, but it's a vital experience for anyone seeking to further understand the racial fears and injustices that we still face today. The fact that it's a perfectly structured and heavily engaging thriller is a bonus.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com