Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Stars: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith
Following a vibrant if tonally skewed animated opening that cliff notes African-American history leading up to our story, Bigelow thrusts us into the first day of the 1967 race riots in Detroit, mimicking the role of documentary filmmaker, painstakingly setting the scene for the violence to come. This cinéma vérité style is in keeping with her recent catalogue. Given the critical success of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, its easy to see why Bigelow would continue riding this train. And it works for her. Where other heavyweight period pieces can fall into the trap of appearing too carefully manufactured (resulting in fastidious museum pieces that lack a sense of authenticity), Bigelow’s depiction of Detroit feels convincing and well-researched. Mark Boal’s script is nothing if not thorough.
There is no central protagonist followed here, and the opening 30 to 40 minutes go some way to suggesting that Detroit will play out as a roving collage of events across the city during those tumultuous days. We are introduced to several small stories. Will Poulter plays a young, frightened and above all racist cop named Krauss with an itchy trigger finger. He shoots a fleeing shoplifter in the back and that man later dies, yet he isn’t reprimanded for this murder. Elsewhere Star Wars hero John Boyega is called into work as a security guard for a liquor store. Eager to stay out of trouble, his character, Dismukes, welcomes the national guard with coffee in an effort to remain memorable as a positive presence as the days and nights roll by. The third prominent strand follows the exploits of Larry Cleveland Reed (Algee Smith); a then-member of the future Motown singers The Dramatics. He and his friend Aubrey (Nathan Davis, Jr.) set off across town to the Algiers Motel where Larry hopes to introduce Aubrey to some young white ladies (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever).
It is at an annex to this motel that these three story lines intersect and Detroit changes tack. The riots provide substantive background and context for this true-life crime story and the focus of the film moves from the epidemic of agitated violence to a specific case of police intimidation, cruelty and criminality. Anyone hoping for a fuller deconstruction of the cause, effect and meaning of the riots themselves may have to investigate this subject matter elsewhere.
On 25th July 1967, the third night of the riots, officer Krauss and his colleagues Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Raynor) responded to shots seemingly being fired by a sniper at the Algiers motel. On investigating the man believed responsible for the sounds, Carl (Jason Mitchell), was shot dead while fleeing from Krauss in a set of circumstances similar to those seen involving this same officer earlier. Everybody else present in the motel was then rounded up by the officers and terrorised. Krauss and his men used extreme methods to interrogate their suspects. Dismukes acts as the audience; watching with growing unease.
This middle section of the film is claustrophobic and brutal. Bigelow pushes in on everyone in an extremely uncomfortable hothouse of blood, sweat and tears. Krauss’ exploitation of the situation to inform his own feeble lust for dominance and power is equalled by Bigelow’s insistence on making the ordeal as nasty as possible. This is exploitative in itself. It’s as though the film has stepped through a funhouse mirror and the world has become consistently contorted. Hysteria prevails and Detroit becomes as relentless as it is vile and exhausting. Bigelow wants to rub our noses in the horror.
Poulter doesn’t shy away from making Krauss as snivelling and loathsome as is possible. It’s one note, but his commitment to it is full-throated. Should we relate to a racist? Bigelow removes all ambiguity, giving us a sickening villain whose monstrous behaviour is only tempered by appalling plausibility. As his methods involve intense psychological torture, it marks a shift in perspective for the director. The uneasy ambiguities of Zero Dark Thirty are absent. Still, there’s no defending what happened in that motel, not with any sanity. The end of the film includes a disclaimer that this recreation of events rests on the testimonies of the survivors and is therefore as true an account as can be mustered. Still, Detroit teeters on the edge of blunt-force misery porn as we are asked to endure along with the characters.
Once the situation is resolved and with plenty of blood spilled, the film then enters a third phase which is leisurely and more typical of lighter-weight Hollywood fare. Drawn-out court proceedings, quick character cliff notes, the tugging of emotional heart-strings… Some of these are better navigated than others. Detroit has loose ends to tie, sure, but it quickly starts to feel as though Bigelow doesn’t quite know how to stop. Hell, it damned near turns into a biopic of Larry Reed, presumably as his proximity to The Dramatics makes him the most famous name in attendance, which is an unintended slight on the others. The picture becomes unruly and baggy. The hard-earned lesson is that there is no making up for misdeeds like this.
There’s no reason to expect subtlety from Bigelow based on her past form and the subject of unchecked criminality and racism within the police force is one worth addressing head-on, especially as modern-day America seems no less broken than the version lived through fifty years ago. Detroit is a deliberately repulsive journey into that darkness. If it’s an unpleasant experience then it is also a success. The act of watching it is purposefully upsetting. But in its misleading and untamed structure it is, in effect, something of a broken film. Effective, but broken.