Aug 7, 2017

It's history, and it's not pretty.


Grade: B+

Director: Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty)

Screenplay: Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker)

Cast: John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Anthony Mackie (Captain America: Civil War)

Rating: R

Runtime: 2 hr 23 min

by John DeSando

“Sniper in the window.” National Guardsman, right before the window and the little girl were fired on.

The Detroit racial riots of 1967 have often been described as a war zone, and that’s what director Kathryn Bigelow has done in her docudrama Detroit. Just as in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, she has taken strife-ridden history and recreated it on the screen to such a degree of terror realism, almost hyper-realism, that “based on a true story” is too tame to do justice to her reenactment.

That she is a Northern-California woman depicting a seminal black experience is both problematic and astonishing: “What better way to use your white privilege than to undermine it, raise questions about it, leverage it on behalf of black and brown people who usually don’t have a voice in the matter at all.” Bigelow

The operative motif for me is the music hall, where, after riots were fomented by a gratuitous police raid of an unregistered black club, Martha and the Vandellas sing No Place to Hide and a young male foursome called The Dramatists wait to go on stage. The promise of the young group is shattered by police clearing the hall for safety’s sake. The disintegration of social opportunity and the danger of modern racism is the heart of the unrest.

The overly-long sequence at the Algiers Motel is the central violent piece, where black men and white women are rousted from the hotel, and three men are murdered by a rabid group of Detroit police with the National Guard acquiescing. The police’s torture of these benign revelers, albeit one has shot a starter gun at the police from a window, looks as if the cops will eventually be exonerated of their crimes because of the riotous circumstances.

More importantly, the next 50 years will be fraught with such white violence against blacks that we can all wonder what we have learned, if anything. Is racism just a part of our societal fabric? If it takes hundreds of years, equality will happen, but not 50 years out today.

Bigelow and her Zero Dark Thirty collaborator writer Mark Boal, along with gifted cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, have created an unforgettable landscape of destruction and carnage right here in America. While some may complain that the up close, personal, and jiggly hand-held camera is annoying, none may criticize the realism Bigelow has created.

Too real, and too possible that it may happen over and over again until we get this race thing right.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at