Katheryn Bigelow’s Detroit showcases a director at the peak of her powers, but without an effective story to tell.
It was only a matter of how and when.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit marks her third-straight collaboration with screenwriter Mark Boal, and the pair have turned their attention to one of America’s darkest moments, the 1967 Detroit riots, with specific attention on the brutal Algiers Motel Incident that left three young black men dead. It’s an opportunity to revisit a timely story and wonder about just how far we’ve managed to come, or not come, in the last 50 years.
What’s the weirdest way you’ve ever described a film? Detroit is something of a narrative bowtie, with Bigelow and Boal casting the widest net possible in the film’s first act before narrowing down into a focused knot, and then opening it up again in the final 45 minutes. The film begins with an aggressive police raid on an illegal black nightclub, which evolves into the first spark of the riot as the white police officers manhandle the crowd that they’re arresting. A mob gathers looking for answers, and tensions erupt into outrage, a history of white police brutality on black citizens finally coming to a head. The crowd begins throwing rocks and bashing store windows before moving up to Molotov cocktails and open looting. “War, children — it’s just a shot away,” as the Rolling Stones once sang. As the next two days pass the discord morphs into a full-scale riot.
Bigelow and editor William Goldenberg shine over the course of the film’s first act as the director uses brief scenes to cut across the riot-effected parts of the city. A pair of cops chase down a looter before shooting him in the back. The National Guard moves in to keep peace and then mistakes a young girl peeking through the blinds for a sniper, riddling her apartment with machine gun fire. A local black politician pleads for peace in the streets while his constituents bristle and call for Black Power activist Stokley Carmichael instead. Historical newsreels intersperse with the dramatized footage. Many of these characters are seen once and then disappear from the film as Bigelow attempts to showcase the struggle in each corner of the city.
But the film eventually tapers down as the focus shifts from the city itself to a few central characters. Larry (Algee Smith) is the front man of an unsigned soul group who seeks shelter at the Algiers motel after his group’s career-launching gig in front of Motown executives is shut down by the riots. There he meets Julie Ann (Hannah Murray, Game of Thrones) and her friend Karen, two young white girls staying at the mostly black motel. Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is a local security guard who ingratiates himself to the Detroit Police and National Guard by offering them coffee and purposeful humility. Will Poulter (We’re the Millers) plays Officer Phillip Krauss, a stereotypically unhinged and racist cop who’s dispatched back onto the streets during the height of the riot despite already being suspected of a racially charged homicide.
The police and National Guard descend on the Algiers Motel with Dismukes in tow when they suspect the building to be the source of sniper fire in the area, with Larry, Julie Ann, and a handful of other black men caught with no escape in the onslaught from the Detroit PD. Over the course of the next hour, the film only momentarily turns away from the Algiers as Krauss and his team of officers assault, terrorize, and sexually assault the motel’s inhabitants in search of answers. It’s a brutal hour of film, amplified by Bigelow’s unflinching eye and a terrifying performance from Poulter. But under the overwhelming tension and violence of the Algiers Motel standoff Detroit begins to fall apart, crushed under the weight of its own unwavering brutality. Is this a film about racial violence, or just a racially violent movie?
Detroit is the most complicated film of the summer, and less for the morality of what happens on screen than the question of what the film is supposed to mean. In the current era of racial strife, media coverage of police brutality, and specifically the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, much of this seems old hat. The world is well aware of the conflict between black America and aggressive policing. What it needs is a solution, but Bigelow and Boal don’t even attempt one.
Part of that stems from Bigelow’s technique, which has skewed towards passive observation ever since The Hurt Locker. Her camera is less a participant in Detroit’s events than an outside documenter, and that’s exactly how that film plays out. Neither Bigelow nor Boal are interested in offering any distinct moral judgement on the events at the Algiers Motel (counterpoint: is it so obvious that they don’t need to?), simply recording events as they play out. But whereas that technique worked for The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty and their themes of obsession, it feels distinctly out of touch here. The result is an hour-long segment in the middle of Detroit that can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling of voyeurism. The audience is forced to sit and watch scene after scene of white police officers physically and mentally abusing the terrified group with no sense of emotional catharsis in sight (the film’s final act depicting the impact of the riot on the city never really gels).
Boal hasn’t rounded out his characters enough to find any emotional heartbeat beyond terror and violence, and it’s a problem that I can only name one or two characters after spending 143 minutes watching their story. The true events of the Algiers Motel incident have never been conclusively established, and Boal is forced to construct what he can from witness testimonies, but he leaves too much thematically important material untouched in the service of historical accuracy.
Boyega is excellent, but the film’s investigation of the blurred lines between his presence as both an armed authority figure and black man are only skin deep. Is he a horrified witness of these events or is he complicit through his inaction? What is the source of Krauss’ over-the-top racism? The film doesn’t seem to know. The result is nameless white authoritarianism inflicted on nameless black victims, a racial snuff film. If Bigelow’s camera is meant to be a detached observer then it’s worth asking what type of person the viewer is supposed to be, and the logical conclusion isn’t pretty.
I don’t mean to crush Kathryn Bigelow, who remains at the peak of her technical powers in Detroit, and, for all of the film’s problems, her direction isn’t one of them. She and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd style the film to look like grainy 1970s newsreels, both in visual style and narrative structure. No one in Hollywood can match her for intensity and action, and Detroit has that in spades. Nor is there any blame on the costume or production designers who do an immaculate job of evoking the urban crumble of 1960s Detroit. Most of the blame lies with Boal, whose event-based journalistic approach isn’t well suited for this story. Perhaps Boal was shooting for a “fog of war” story about the confusion of the moment, but I found myself internally screaming at the characters for failing to ever mention the object that the police are searching for despite their obvious knowledge of it. It defies logic. I’m sure Boal and Bigelow had the best of intentions, but you know what people say about those.
Racism is a complicated subject and I appreciate one of our greatest filmmaker’s attempts to cover it, but much of the criticism towards Bigelow’s work here is valid. Detroit should have been the film of the summer, an epic of American injustice topical and important enough to penetrate the superhero bubble, but it can’t fully wrangle its subject matter. You can’t entirely blame Bigelow for that. America itself hasn’t been able to face its race problem over the past 250 years. How could we expect her to? The real problem is that she and Boal never really tried.