Film Review – Detroit
The tragedy of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit (2017) is that – despite the fact that the events it depicts took place fifty years ago – the country still sees similar occurrences happen this very day. Racism is an ugly stain on the legacy of America, a deep seeded presence that may never be fully resolved in our lifetime. What happened on that fateful night of July 25th 1967 is only one of countless examples of a corrupt establishment and the outcry of a public desperate to have their voices heard. All throughout history, we’ve seen the cycle repeated: from the 1992 L.A. Riots to the Ferguson unrest of just a few years ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Bigelow starts off her latest with a quick animated sequence tracing the history of racial inequality – starting from slavery to the social migration shortly after WWII – setting a foundation for the tension between color lines. This beginning is meant to provide a context for what we see in the duration of Detroit, but the impact doesn’t really leave much resonance. The history of racial conflict in America is far too big and complex to be encapsulated in what is essentially a montage. But once she settles into her main narrative, Bigelow shows us a vivid and brutal world. With Barry Ackroyd’s hand-held cinematography and Mark Boal’s lean script, Bigelow captures the Detroit riots like a documentary. She even injects real life, archival footage and the blending is seamless. At specific points, I couldn’t tell if a shot was made for the film or if it was actual recorded footage from that time.
What started out as a police raid of an unlicensed bar soon exploded into an all out riot that lasted days. The violence intensified to the point that the state national guard had to be called in. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the military in hopes of quelling the chaos. It was a mix of bad ingredients: you had a community that felt frustrated for the discrimination they’ve dealt with for years, a police force that has abused their authority, and a military coming in treating the situation as a war zone. It was a ticking time bomb.
We focus in on the Algiers Motel, a short distance away from where the riots started. This is the site where one of the worst encounters took place. Responding to the threat of a sniper in the area, authorities raided the motel and held up the guests for interrogation. The head of the squad is Officer Krauss (Will Poulter), an unrelenting racist who will go to any lengths to get what he wants, whether it’s by intimidation, humiliation, or physical abuse. Amongst the group he holds up (primarily black males) are Larry (Algee Smith), an aspiring singer, Larry’s friend (Jacob Latimore), a veteran returning from Vietnam (Anthony Mackie), and two white women (Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever).
What transpires in the motel is one of the nastiest examples of racism and police brutality captured on film. It’s not just the violence and physical/mental abuse that makes it so sickening, but the extended length. Bigelow never pulls away, she places the camera directly into the ordeal, as though we were an active participant. We grow frustrated with what happens on screen, as the police officers and National Guard bully, beat up, and frighten each of their wrongly accused suspects to get a confession. We want to look away, to relieve ourselves of the torture. But Bigelow never concedes for our comfort, she sticks it out minute by cruel minute. The victims of the Algiers Motel incident didn’t have a choice of when the brutality would stop, and Bigelow translates that feeling of hopelessness with startling detail.
Three main characters emerge. The first is Officer Krauss. Will Poulter should be commended for his willingness to portray such an evil character. It takes a special kind of actor to commit to a role that paints them with with such despicable brushstrokes. The negative reaction we have for Office Krauss is a testament to Poulter’s skill. Bigelow makes great use of his baby-face: the round cheeks, the small eyes, and the thin eyebrows. When Krauss flashes his smug grin, we collectively react by wanting to punch him in the face.
John Boyega plays the most difficult role. Dismukes is a security officer. Because he is black, Dismukes is put in an awkward situation between both sides of the racial line. He devotes his time to serve and protect, but he is fully aware of the institutional racism that exists within his profession. Most of his actions are based on pure survival. When the national guard patrols his area, Dismukes placates them by giving them coffee. When he witnesses other officers abusing a black teen, he comes to the rescue by pretending the kid is his relative and offering to discipline them himself. While this practice helps Dismukes get out of sticky situations, it also frames him in a negative light within the black community. The very teen he saves calls him an Uncle Tom for selling out to the white officers. It’s a tough position to be in, and Boyega successfully brings both conflicting traits to full fruition.
The stand out performance comes from Algee Smith. As the up and coming singer, Smith plays Larry with a smooth and cool style to begin with. He commands the screen while showing little effort. But the events of the Algiers Motel changes Larry. Detroit really hits a high point afterwards, as we witness the effects put upon this man. When a person is treated in such a terrible way, and no justice comes from that mistreatment, all that is left for them is bitterness and hate. The anger and depression seeps through Larry’s being, the bright eyed kid we meet changes forever. That is what we as viewers tend to forget when true stories like this are made into movies. Yes, films about racial inequality hit us hard, but the real horror happens long after all is said and done. The wounds run deep – the betrayal by those we’re supposed to trust has an impact that lasts a lifetime. People that go through these experiences have a difficult time adjusting back to “normality,” and it shapes them in ways that might be permanent.
Kathryn Bigelow leaves out all pretension – there are no fancy camera moves or overly artistic flares that call our attention. Everything is gritty and realistic. However, Bigelow’s approach is so steadfast that it becomes almost a detriment. There’s a coldness in her execution, a feeling of detachment from all that is happening. Does this emptiness come from the fact that we are witnessing racially motivated pain inflicted on black people told from the perspective of a white director and white writer? The Color Purple (1985) traversed similar territory, but felt much more involving. Steven Spielberg had empathy for his story and characters where Bigelow sticks strictly to the facts. As a result everything ends up being clinical, as though she were giving a book report. I suppose in a story such as this, there isn’t much need for her to provide her own emotion since the narrative draws them out of us in an extreme way anyway. But I couldn’t help but think that there’s something missing between the lines, something preventing it from being truly remarkable. Despite how well made Detroit is, and how important it is to remember within a historical context, this disconnection is something I’ll grappling with for some time after I’m done with this review.