In Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s unflinching look at a specific incident of unrest in one of America’s most troubled cities, a roster of excellent performances can’t crawl out from under unfocused direction, flat characterizations, and a torture-pornographic middle chapter so devoid of nuance that one wonders if—for fear of stepping too far outside of social boundaries and into the world of appropriation—the filmmakers backed off from a more courageous script. The thing is, this power-combo of Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal has proven twice now (first with The Hurt Locker, then with Zero Dark Thirty), that one needn’t be entrenched in a real-life narrative to further the conversation on it or shed light on the social fibers entangled within. Had they followed through on the promise of this film’s absolutely stellar first act, I sense most culture critics would have been too moved to condemn them for doing so. It’s a tough line to walk. So tough, in fact, that I’ve spent weeks wrestling with it before committing any words to the page. Kudos to Bigelow/Boal for traversing such troubled waters, even if the product, in my estimation, is all bite and little substance.
Detroit begins with an animated version of Jacob Lawrence’s “The Great Migration” painting series. It tells the story of African Americans leaving the rural south in the hopes of finding better circumstances in northern cities. Upon arriving, migrators found that the progressive paradise they expected was only a myth, and that racism was still very much alive. This northern brand of racism was systemic, and thus, proved to be much more insidious and harder to combat. Fast forward to 1967 Detroit, where decades of tension between a largely African-American populace and an almost entirely Caucasian police force is primed to explode. When the cops bust an after-hours welcome home party being thrown for newly returned Vietnam vets, the spark occurs, and what begins with yelling and bottle-throwing soon escalates into a larger conflict. Call it rioting, call it rebelling, or call it what it is: the inevitable outcome of long-term systemic abuse.
From here, Detroit shows great promise, introducing us to a handful of characters poised to be embroiled in the brewing unrest. And for the duration of the first act, it appears that we’re about to see the lens pulled back on a sad historical event which is painfully similar to things we still see to this very day.
The turmoil on the streets results in a curfew which cancels a big show for burgeoning Motown group, The Dramatics. It also leads to an unwanted night shift for a young security guard (John Boyega) assigned to protect a local storefront. Elsewhere we meet a trigger-happy, racist cop (Will Poulter) who is permitted to return to active duty after shooting an unarmed man in the back, killing him.
As local cops, state troopers, and the military storm the streets to restore order, what begins as an event-based ensemble piece in the vein of Patriot’s Day by way of The Wire, is almost immediately zoomed into such tight focus on a singular event that the title no longer seems to apply. From act two through to the closing credits, the film would be better served with the title of ‘The Massacre at Algiers Motel.’ Remove the real-world framing device and switch the cops for mutated hillbillies, and you could take Detroit‘s gut-wrenching second act and pass it off as an early-aughts torture-porn film.
Here’s what goes down. When the shining star and the manager of The Dramatics (Algee Smith & Jacob Latimore, respectively) are forced to hole up in the Algiers Motel for the duration of the evening’s protests, they come across a group of young men and women having a party. After some back-and-forth male posturing, the most imposing of the bunch (Jason Mitchell, cinema’s current champ of chameleonic character work), decides to anonymously fire a starter pistol in the direction of a law enforcement blockade. This results in a short, one-sided gunfight, and before you can say “abuse of power” more shots are fired, a man is dead, and a long line of innocent bystanders are lined up execution style for an “interrogation.” For the better part of an hour we watch this brutal scene snowball in a ways that seem impossible despite being true.
In a way, the raw brutality of this punishing middle chapter has value, if only to show an insider’s view of a cruelty that persists to present day. For this reason alone, I think that Detroit, should be sought out by viewers who can stomach it, even if I found it frustrating. At the same time, the complete lack of depth mirrors a sentiment which so often pervades conversations about racism. Namely, that once we wag our finger and say “problematic” the work is done. No, I’m not saying that historical event movies like Detroit are required to offer a solution (Schindler’s List most certainly did not), but when the film’s thesis can be boiled down to “this is F-ed up” then there really isn’t much to separate it from torture porn. In contrast, I’d say the thesis of Schindler’s List is “just because you can only do a little doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything at all.” Much more valuable in my humble opinion.
Maybe that’s what bugged me most with Detroit. Racists simply will not be moved by this movie. Non-racists are in agreement with its broad message. So what’s the point of devoting the bulk of a 2.5 hour movie to watching people of color suffer?
Yet even as I declare my distaste for the film, I must also commend its promising first act as well as the timely nature of its release. I mean, the president just advocated police violence, so an angry film like this one getting a major release is unarguably a good thing. But much in the same way that I criticize The Passion of the Christ for bringing fire and brimstone back into religion (despite being a very well-made film), I must criticize Detroit (an equally well-made film) for bringing nothing but anger to the table.
If you do end up seeing Detroit, savor the performances. Watching a cast of some of our finest up-and-coming actors and actresses is a real treat. The way that each elevate these characters from such sparse designs, creating real emotion in process, is inspiring to say the least. Keep an eye on Jason Mitchell. He’s going places.
Detroit opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.