I don’t need to tell you about the most recent rash of protests, demonstrations, and riots over alleged cases of police brutality against unarmed black citizens. We all know about it. We also know that several period biopics and documentaries have been made in direct response to this – Fruitvale Station, 12 Years a Slave, Selma, The Birth of a Nation, 13th, I Am Not Your Negro – driving home the point that racism hasn’t died, that what’s happening today has been going on for decades, even centuries. Despite this, I haven’t gotten the sense that these movies were made merely to capitalize on recent events; I felt they were genuinely telling important stories and making important points.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, on the other hand, is so at pains to draw parallels between then and now that, at times, it comes off as condescending. The “then” in this case, obviously, is July of 1967, when tensions between the police and African Americans of Detroit, Michigan came to a head, resulting in five days of deadly, destructive rioting, a dubious distinction that would remain unsurpassed until the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. Given the film’s intentional release for the Detroit riot’s fiftieth anniversary, it doesn’t seem as if we’re being educated or enlightened, but rather that we’re being lectured. I felt as if I was watching the history of racism dramatically condensed into the space of 143 minutes.
Given everything I just said, I’m still recommending this film. But why? I think because, in spite of some questionable narrative tactics, the performances are uniformly excellent, and some of the camerawork and editing techniques effectively capture the emotional rawness of the time – the anger, the confusion, the fear, the hatred, the prejudice, the disillusionment, the frustration over a continuous lack of progress. That emotional rawness exists today, as well, which goes without saying. We’ve all seen it, if not in person then certainly on the news; another black life is taken, and another white officer is either given an overly lenient punishment or let off the hook entirely.
Part of the problem is that the scope of the film is too broad. Apart from the riots themselves, which are appropriately shot with a very shaky handheld camera, it also dramatizes the Algiers Motel incident, in which three black males were shot to death while an additional seven black males and two white females were beaten and humiliated. This eventually transitions into a rather conventional courtroom drama. Topping all that off, the film is a quasi-backstage drama, specifically the efforts of the singing group The Dramatics to make their big break in the midst of the violence in the streets and at the Algiers. One of the members, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), was understandably traumatized and disheartened by the incidents, ultimately deciding that he didn’t want to cut a record simply “to make white people dance.”
The incident at the Algiers has always been somewhat murky. John Hersey attempted to clear up the matter with his nonfiction book The Algiers Motel Incident, which sold very well; despite this, screenwriter Mark Boal is said to have relied on his own sources – eyewitness interviews, the end credits tell us – to craft his screenplay. According to what we’re shown, both the deaths and the humiliation was the work of white cops, specifically a racist rookie (Will Poulter) who masterminds, unsuccessfully, a sadistic game in which the “suspects” are led to believe that the individuals forced into another room are shot dead. The thinking is that the remaining people will be spooked into confessing, in this case regarding the whereabouts of a gun. What the cops don’t know is that the “gun” was merely a cap pistol, and it was fired, unwisely, as a way to provoke.
There isn’t a bad performance to be found in this movie. Two particular standouts: John Boyega as a part-time security guard, who’s in a tug-of-war between a black community that sees him as an Uncle Tom and a predominantly white police force with too much power; and Anthony Mackie as a Vietnam veteran who simply can’t make Poulter’s character believe that he served his country honorably, and worse, that he isn’t a pimp for the two white girls staying at the Algiers (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever). The problem with Detroit is that it lacks focus. The Dramatics subplot is entirely unnecessary, and when the Algiers incident ends, turning the film into a courtroom drama, featuring John Krasinski, seems like taking the easy way out.
But it’s biggest issue is that it’s just too on-the-nose. Yes, we’ve seen several recently-made films that intentionally address what this film addresses, namely the divide between black communities and predominantly white institutions, mostly police. But most of those other films weren’t so obvious in their approaches. Detroit is so unsubtle that it always feels like it’s preaching. Yet, even with its narrative flaws, Bigelow clearly understands the power of an image. In the best possible sense, this isn’t an elegant visual dossier; it’s raw and gritty, the camera held loosely most of the time. It genuinely evokes emotions. So even though it isn’t one of Bigelow’s better films, it’s still a success.