To watch Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is a struggle. It’s a struggle to see the violence continually wreaked upon black bodies in the story of the ‘Detroit rebellion’ in 1967. But it’s also a struggle to figure out who this film is actually for, what it has to say in the end, and what we really gain from this experience. There’s a strikingly tense and harrowing central act to the film, but the rest of it doesn’t match up or provide an adequate framework.
It’s important that Bigelow wants to tell this story and has the ability to take it to the screen. But it’s also worth asking the question of whether white, San Franciscan Bigelow and her writing partner Mark Boal are the right people to tell this story of the black experience in the civil rights era. The answer is probably not. Bigelow has acknowledged as much, so she knew she had to do the research, ask the right questions of the right people and be open and collaborative in production. But while Bigelow and Boal are excellent at creating a tension filled and fuelled piece like this can be, they fail to provide the proper context – to the city, to the system, to history, to being African American in Detroit. To give any depth to the characters whose bodies are beaten and lives changed or ended forever.
The only context to the film’s story is literally and figuratively painted in broad strokes. Illustrated in the style of African American artist Jacob Lawrence, a prologue sketches out the story of the migration of black Americans from the south into the north and west after World War I. They move into densely populated urban areas policed by white forces, where they find that equality was an illusion and that rising racial tensions mean conflict becomes inevitable.
In Detroit those tensions come to a head in July 1967 when the police raid a speakeasy. It’s a seemingly innocuous kind of bust, but the locals have had enough of seeing their neighbours lined up against walls and shoved into police vans. With Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s documentary, handheld style, you can feel the people finally get sick of it, feel the tension rise and almost squeeze the frame in. They capture how the small can quickly escalate, how an incident can crystallise a feeling and morph frustration into citywide destruction. Using a mix of archival footage and dramatisation, the meandering first act follows the transformation of parts of Detroit into a war zone. The national guard are called in and they patrol the streets with bayonets attached and ready. Convoys with heavy machine guns roll through the streets like an occupying force, and the smoke and hazy oranges call to mind Vietnam war movies.
The film then shifts its gaze from the wide to the small, focusing in on three men during an ‘incident’ at the Algiers motel. The events here are meant to serve as a microcosm of what was happening across urban areas and America as a whole. John Boyega is Melvin Dismukes, a local security guard who ends up at the motel assisting the police. Boyega reminds a bit of Denzel Washington in the way he talks, the glimpses into conflict beneath a silent surface, but he’s ultimately wasted here. Will Poulter is excellent as beat cop Philip Krauss, recently reprimanded for shooting and wounding a fleeing looter, while Algee Smith embodies a traumatic loss of innocence as Larry Reed, a singer in town hoping for his big break.
When Larry’s band’s first big show gets cancelled due to the rioting, he and his friend seek refuge from the streets in the Algiers motel. There they hang out with two white girls and get introduced to their friends in the process. A prank with a starter pistol acts as both a foreshadowing of what’s to come and as the catalyst to the Detroit PD (led by Krauss), state troopers and national guard storming the annex of the motel. They are searching for a gunman who supposedly opened fire on the guardsmen.
As Krauss leads his men on a search for the phantom sniper, the film becomes incredibly claustrophobic and hard to watch. We too are trapped in the house as the cops question, threaten, bait and intimidate – we are witness, accomplice almost, to the torture. At times it’s like a horror film where the killer is in the house; a war film where the enemy surrounds a position and the only likely outcome is death. It’s stressful and traumatic to watch, and the best part of the film.
But while the film is saying “look what happened, what’s still happening”, that’s not really illuminating or surprising. Unfortunately this kind of racism is something shown on the news and internet all the time. And Detroit doesn’t go any further than that. While the final third of the film deals with the outcome of the case decided by an all-white jury, it doesn’t actually have anything more to say on things like systematic racism or injustice. In fact there are bits that are so out of place they actually seem designed to assure white viewers that was not systematic, but a few bad people. A white police officer cradles one of the victims like a baby, saying “who would do this to someone?”, while a detective actually comes out and calls one of the cops a “racist f**k”.
In the end Detroit is actually quite indifferent, quite callous. There’s no denying the brutal effectiveness of the central motel sequence, but without context, without anything meaningful to say, it becomes nothing more than exploitative.
Detroit is in cinemas from 9th November through Entertainment One.