Equally powerful and punishing, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is a film that can – at the same time – draw admiration for its dynamic filmmaking and be a difficult viewing experience. I don’t mean to say that the film doesn’t engage – boy, does it ever – or that I didn’t think it was a great piece of cinematic art – I do – but it is relentlessly disturbing, angry, shocking and despairing. In other words, it’s a movie to which people should submit themselves, white America especially.
There have been some arguments that Bigelow, who is white, is not the person who should have told this story and Hollywood’s history of white people telling black stories (for example, Ghosts of Mississippi and other movies that focus on race relations) has often been one of sanitization. That is not the case here. In fact, if anything, Detroit is unflinching to the point of making one uncomfortable – as it should – and occasionally unbearable to watch.
The picture is, of course, set amid the massive 1967 riot in the titular city that began as civil disobedience after police conducted a raid at an unlicensed, after hours bar known as the Blind Pig and were unnecessarily rough with the black patrons whom they arrested. This then turned into a full-scale riot that is considered among the most destructive of its type in U.S. history.
And amid all the confusion and melee taking place on the streets of Detroit, a horrific incident at the Algiers Motel – which takes up a majority of Bigelow’s film – is one of the most prominent and terrifying examples of police brutality on people of color. It is also one that – and I’m pretty sure that this won’t ruin the moviegoing experience for anyone as it should probably come as no surprise, given our nation’s recent history – resulted in abusive white officers mostly going unpunished.
There are multiple plot threads in Bigelow’s film and there has been some criticism – and some of it not completely off the mark – that the numerous characters in the movie only get minimal development. In other words, most of them are archetypes, however, for the purpose of the film it didn’t take much away from my personal experience of the picture.
Gathered at the Algiers are a member of The Dramatics – yes, the great 1970s soul-funk outfit responsible for “What You See Is What You Get” – named Larry (Algee Smith) and his pal Fred (Jacob Latimore), another group of black men who are having a party upstairs at the hotel, two young white women who are in town from Ohio and a military veteran named Greene (Anthony Mackie). When one of the men from the party sets off a starter pistol, local police and National Guardsmen mistake the shots for a sniper and descend on the hotel.
There are various sets of law enforcement officials – Detroit cops, Michigan troopers, Guardsmen – who wind up at the motel, but the most significant are the heinous, racist Krauss (Will Poulter) – who is seen earlier in the film shooting a young shoplifter in the back as he flees – as well as two of his cohorts and a security guard known as Dismukes (John Boyega, who is the film’s MVP), who also happens to be the only black person wearing a badge and carrying a gun in the movie. Dismukes wanders onto the scene in the hopes of keeping the peace amid the riot, but finds himself bearing witness to the atrocities that take place.
The first quarter of the film lays the groundwork, depicting war-zone-like sequences in which rioters and looters duck and cover as police pursue them. Also, Larry and Fred prepare as The Dramatics are set to take the stage to perform on Detroit’s “Swingin’ Time” program, where they will follow Martha and the Vandellas, who are singing “Nowhere to Run.” But the riots interrupt the program and the group never gets the chance to take the stage.
At least half of the movie is set in the Algiers Motel, where Bigelow stages a harrowing sequence during which Krauss and his officers raid and then terrorize the black men on the premises as well as the two white women, whose presence appears to anger the officers even more. It’s amazing that more than half of the entire movie involves characters facing a wall while police officers search the premises and engage in all manner of psychological and physical abuse. It’s one of the most terrifying set pieces I’ve ever experienced – but what makes it even more powerful is that it is preluded by a speech from one of the hotel’s denizens, who describes such experiences as everyday occurrences in the lives of black men in America.
In the wake of the motel incident, which leaves three dead – all shot in cold blood by police officers – the picture follows the ensuing trial, which is, arguably, a bit too straightforward stylistically, considering all that has gone on before. There’s even a scene in which someone has an outburst in the courtroom. In any other movie, it would have been an example of eye-roll-inducing melodrama, but here it’s more than earned.
Detroit may not quite reach the heights of Bigelow’s previous film – the remarkable Zero Dark Thirty – but it’s pretty stunning nevertheless. It’s been said numerous times about numerous other recent movies and it’ll be said again, but this picture is not only a powerful recounting of a horrific moment in U.S. history, but also a window into where we are now.
Incidents such as the one at the Algiers are seemingly never-ending in our culture. It would take more than two hands to count all of the incidents that have made the news in recent years during which a young, unarmed black man was gunned down by police. Bigelow’s film shines a light on one such particular incident – and the experience is overwhelming and gut wrenching. Art has many purposes – and one of them is to put viewers into the shoes of others to enable one to understand the experiences of others. Detroit does such a thing and the result is devastating.