If we choose, we can learn from history. If we keep our minds and hearts open to what we explore, we can absorb the meaning of past events. These lessons will teach us what to avoid as we move forward. But we have to be present to learn. And willing to change.

At any time, Kathryn Bigelow’s film Detroit would be a powerful reminder of the impact of hatred between races. Seen today, with all we experience in recent our world, its message could not be more significant. This detailed, heart-breaking recreation of the Detroit riots of 1967 reminds us what can happen when people only believe in what they fear. When we refuse to be accountable for the fragility of human life.

From its first moments — one evening as the riots begin — we know Detroit will be serious about its issues. As a director, Bigelow does not shoot violence scenes from an artistic view. Rather she restages what history teaches in painstaking detail for multiple cameras to capture. This approach puts us in the middle of horrifying events, surrounded by anger, unable to escape the intensity. We are there in Detroit in 1967. And we can’t get away.

Bigelow’s history lesson focuses on one turbulent event in the heat of that summer. As she so artfully accomplished with the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, the director visually establishes the context of conflict before developing her characters. By first establishing the background of racial tension she makes it easier to get to know the people affected. We meet three young black men who seek safety from the streets in a local motel only to find their illusions of security rudely interrupted by events they do not understand and cannot control. With the precision of a documentarian, Bigelow creates a thriller out of a story we know. With the creativity of an artist, she brings this moment alive by making us care for the individuals impacted by hatred. She does not simply show the blood that hatred can create. She articulates why it matters.

This is the director’s film. While her screenwriter, Mark Boal, may let the narrative slow in the film’s final third, and the film feels long, Bigelow never lets the tension ease. She is so committed to the material, and focused on the message, that she sacrifices obvious “movie moments” where she could show off her camera to tell a story she knows the camera can capture. And she is so well connected to her cast that we see what occurs through their eyes. As a security guard, John Boyega becomes the conscience of these events while Algee Smith shines as a singer who longs to find a way for his voice to be heard.  

We can learn from history. And we must. Movies help when they explore issues or moments with might otherwise forget. Detroit may not be an easy film to watch but it’s an essential film to experience. Especially now. It opens our eyes to what we may not see and fills our hearts with what we should feel. Revisiting the summer of 1967, when too many made choices influenced by violence, brings us home to how the negative can forever destroy. At any time.

Film Nutritional Value: Detroit

  • Content: High. As the film recreates turbulent moments in our nation’s history it reminds us that, unless we are careful, it could happen again and again.
  • Entertainment: High. The serious messages come to life as Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow restages a moment of time we need to remember.
  • Message: High. Anyone who cares about a community, and the fairness that people share, should savor this picture of what can happen when people fear.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with children about the relations between races is essential at any time, especially now.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Despite its “R” rating, you and your older children should share this film for the messages it so thoughtfully conveys.

Detroit is rated R for “strong violence and pervasive language.” Five Popcorn Buckets. The film runs 2 hours, 23 minutes. It is showing in local theaters.

Straight Outta Compton: Memorable return to a remarkable time

by Mark Schumann

The Reel Dad

Just as Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit returns us to a turbulent 1967, the film Straight Outta Compton from 2015 delivers a serious lesson on how history can repeat. Within the framework of a traditional music biopic, director F. Gary Gray reveals the anger that misunderstanding between races can ignite. And he offers a serious look at the lasting tragedy that prejudice can create.

On its surface, Straight Outta Compton suggests a formula narrative. A young group of friends, responding to the conditions they share in Compton, Calif., in the 1980s, uses music in new ways to express their reactions to violence in their community. When the music takes off, and the crowds respond, the kids are poorly prepared for fame and fortune. And, as they continue to prosper as performers, they find themselves at odds with the excess that success can bring.

While we have seen this narrative many times – from Coal Miner’s Daughter to Dreamgirls – what makes Straight Outta Compton special is what director Gray does with the material. From the conventions of the music biopic he creates a searing look at the barriers that racial tension can build, a cautionary tale about people who prefer to be blind to what happens around them, a reminder that everyone in a community is responsible for how its people behave. What surprises is how Gray delivers such a significant lesson within a movie framework as predictable as the music biopic.

The director offers everything we expect from a musical entertainment. We see the creative process, the thrill of success, the challenge of setbacks, the rewards of fame. But Gray doesn’t stop with the performances. We observe the musicians’ courage to articulate the intensity of relationships in their neighborhood. We experience the prejudice they experience when others refuse to reach beyond limited views of others. And through the music – so effectively performed in a series of thrilling sequences – we see how these innovative observers of the human condition remind their followers how people must account for each other.

As Eazy-E, the emotional center of the film, Jason Mitchell reveals layers of drive, humanity and bitterness. Matching his intensity is O’Shea Jackson, Jr., playing his own father, Ice Cube. Family resemblance aside, the young actor lets us see inside a man with so much to say and such a natural approach to expression. As the controversial Dr. Dre, Corey Hawkins suggests the complexities of a man with a cool exterior hiding many layers while Paul Giamatti, again playing a music group’s manager, balances the positive and negative energy that define Jerry Heller.

With too many of this summer’s films offering too little, Straight Outta Compton delivers a compelling message within a thrilling entertainment. At the end of a brisk 147 minutes, we recognize the talent of the musicians and respect the damage of the prejudice. By telling such a tough story without compromise, Straight Outta Compton delivers an important lesson that feels especially relevant today: When it comes to treating people fairly, people everywhere share the responsibility. No matter where we live.

(Straight Outta Compton is rated R for “language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use.” The film runs 147 minutes and is available on DVD, on demand and online.)