Unrelenting, infuriating, and tonally messy, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, which chronicles the real life events of the Algiers Motel during the Detroit Riots of 1967, is a powerful, albeit sporadic, film. At times, the film is a scorching indictment of police brutality, giving the victims a human and raw connection to the audience so that every blow is felt. Bigelow, for all of her prowess, is not so much a subtle filmmaker, what with her abundance of masculinity and BIG ideas in films such as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty and it’s a coupling that, in many ways, works for the story being told.
If anything is made startlingly clear in the film, it’s that Will Poulter and, especially, John Boyega, are stars. Poulter has the showier role as the corrupt, racist cop Krauss, sinking his teeth into a role completely devoid of empathy; he’s someone who we’re not asked to understand. He simply is a dirtbag whom we loathe from the second he arrives onscreen with his smug entitlement. Boyega, however, is given a much trickier role to balance as Melvin Dismukes, a security guard who gets caught up on the side of the opposition and takes on the role of bystander. He’s sympathetic but guarded, creating a relationship with the audience that’s held at a distance as we’re never clear exactly about what his intent was at the start of the night. Perhaps in any other hands this role would have fallen flat and, as is, Boyega imbues more life into the role than what is actually written on the page (by a screenwriter who couldn’t handle the delicacy of Dismukes complicit position). He is a star in the making, with a silent, sturdy confidence to his physicality and vocal inflection that hearkens back to more classical performers.
The cast is rounded out with terrific turns by a solid, if brief, performance by Anthony Mackie as a Vietnam Veteran and up and comers Jacob Latimore and Algee Smith as members of The Dramatics.
Acting aside, the technical aspects of the film are top notch and Bigelow has proven she knows how to utilize the camera to create the greatest amount of tension in an angry crowd where violence could erupt at any moment. The scenes on the streets, the moments when our characters lives are casually in danger rather than directly as they are in the motel, those are the moments where her impeccable technical eye shines as we hold our breath, nerves keeping our eyes wide and glued to the screen despite the horrors that have been taking place.
She and screenwriter Mark Boal falter in the smaller, more intimate moments, which end up rather disingenuous. Yes, the idea to showcase the bonds between some of the young men who get caught up in the hotel so that the pain of the experience is rawer makes sense, we want to know who these people are. What we don’t need is distracting subplots from the main horror because by the time that that event takes place, it feels like frivolous afterthoughts when instead we could’ve dove deeper into the why’s and how’s about what caused this tension in the first place. This is especially true when those terrorizing moments in the motel seem to go on for an agonizing amount of time. A title card with a brief intro for context doesn’t offer much in such a devastating event where the historical relevance is everything. The screenplay by Boal is the greatest offender, with lines that read unnatural, with the performers only being able to do so much with what they’ve been given.
It cheapens what otherwise is yet another directorial achievement for the director, who has made a career of studying the detriments of male entitlement, ego and pride which, ideally, should’ve made for the perfect fit to a film that showcases how white, masculine narcissism and social dominance can lead to violence and tragedy. Perhaps, with another writer on board or a more diverse production team, there might’ve been a marriage of conceptual visuals and delicate storytelling (it’s worth noting the creative team behind the project including the writer, director, producer, editor and cinematographer are all white).
There’s a fine line that needs to be straddled in a film such as this, where the true to life events that they’re presenting on film are already so horrific that it could become cheap or worse, exploitative, if they were to overtly dramatize rather than just present the facts. For about 45 minutes of the film, we watch as the group of ten black men and the two white women are gathered at the Algiers Hotel and are murdered, sexually threatened, brutalized and terrified by the Detroit Police Officers who believe they have a monopoly over their basic human rights. Those 45 minutes feel even longer than their run time, leaving the majority of the audience in a petrified and disgusted silence as we watch the psychological and physical onslaught against these characters. Rightfully, we’re repulsed by the abuse of power. What isn’t certain however is if Bigelow ended up crossing that line or not. Ultimately, it’s a case of “having your cake and eating it too”. We get to feel outraged but she also, somehow, manages to make sure she isn’t scaring away middle America with a saving face rhetoric that gives white cops a moment of selfless humanity towards the end of the second act. It’s uncertain just who that’s supposed to serve.
In 2017, we live in a world where Confederate flags still fly atop buildings, where black men and women are still feeling threatened from police brutality and whose safety is at question when performing chores as simple and innocuous as driving or walking home. Twelve year-olds are gunned down with no repercussion. Detroit is a story about the not-too-distant past, which in actuality isn’t at all behind us, it’s now. The difference is that if this were to happen today, it might be recorded. Bigelow’s greatest, singular achievement in this film is to never condescend to those who remain angry and instead, champion that anger by refusing to tack on a pseudo “happy ending” for the characters where there were none. It’s an aching and stark reminder that while events such as the 1967 riots are in the past, the tensions and abuse of power that caused them have yet to relinquish their hold on society today, and that is something worth remembering. It’s a shame that those themes weren’t explored further before dissolving into a run of the mill courtroom drama.
Tersely and expertly shot to create unparalleled tension and pit-of-your-stomach anxiety, you’ll leave the theater brimming with anger over the injustice you just watched take place onscreen. Unfortunately, you also might leave wondering if Bigelow was really the right person to tell this story.