Kathryn Bigelow’s ongoing collaboration with journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal previously gave us the searing history lessons of ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, uncompromising visions of war that played in the icky morality of reality. Now they’ve turned their attention to the 1967 Detroit riots, a particularly troubled moment in America’s history of racial strife.
That ‘Detroit’ is a difficult history lesson is no surprise. That it doesn’t quite congeal as well as it should is a minor disappointment, but the film remains a vital and uncompromising watch well worth the painful sit in the theater.
The title might suggest an all-encompassing presentation of the riots that claimed 43 lives over five days – and the movie even seems to start that way with a riveting depiction of the mass arrests surrounding the closure of a drinking establishment that kicked off a great deal of the turmoil. However, the event at the center of Bigelow and Boal’s film is far more specific. It concerns a horrific act of police abuse and brutality in a hotel, which takes up the bulk of the running time, often feeling like it may never end. To get there, we meet a handful of the unfortunate souls in the room (some of whom Boal interviewed as research).
There’s Algee Smith’s hopeful singer striving for Motown fame, John Boyega’s moonlighting security guard in the wrong place at the wrong time, Will Poulter’s racist cop who already shot-gunned an innocent black man before the tragedy, Hannah Murray’s teenage tourist caught in the middle, and a few others. Over the course of the night, three black teenagers a murdered, others are abused in ways they’ll never forget, and the police emerge convinced they’ll get off scott-free. That they succeed is a depressing truth too easy to see coming even if you don’t know the history. Watching the whole harrowing story play out has the emotional impact of a horror film and grand tragedy. You can’t look away and no matter how desperately you hope things will get better.
The film takes its time setting the scene, slowly introducing characters on equal ground who will soon find themselves in the middle of tragedy. Bigelow shoots with frantic handheld cameras to give a sense of docu-realism, but without sacrificing cinematic grammar for suspense and shock when needed. The movie rambles along defined more by character and setting than narrative. You might even wonder where it’s all headed until everyone ends up together in the Algiers Hotel (intriguingly named in context, given the clear influence of the classic film ‘The Battle of Algiers‘ on Bigelow’s jagged realist style). Once everything connects, events unfold in real time in ways that are painful and unrelenting. Police abuse moves from psychological to physical without warning. Tension is so high that silent moments deafen. Quiet refusal to acknowledge how wrong the situation is often feels as disturbing as the acts themselves. As a work of sustained realism, tension and political commentary through dramatic recreation, the sequence is astounding. It’s unforgettable and represents some of the best work that Bigelow and Boal have ever done.
The rest of the movie can often feel a little confused and rushed. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that there’s a 4-5 hour cut of the film out there somewhere. Not all the characters get time to breathe or feel fleshed-out in ways that the story needs. Those that do can occasionally feel unworthy of the focus.
Still, the performers all commit, even if they don’t always have all the scenes they need. Algee Smith’s journey from wide-eyed hopeful musician to a beaten and frightened man is painful to watch. John Boyega’s projection of quiet strength and calm feels almost Denzel Washington-esque, which makes his fate all the more unsettling. Will Poulter’s racist cop is terrifying not just for his violence and inhumane actions, but for his cold rationalizations and the way it’s clear he somehow doesn’t consider himself a racist or doing wrong. At the film’s best, all the characters on screen feel like broken people stumbling through a real scene. At its worst, ‘Detroit’ can feel like a rushed political statement forced onto a genuine tragedy.
Thankfully, there’s very little of the flawed vision here. Only a handful of overplayed hands, didactic moments, and underdeveloped characters distract from what is otherwise a potent and intense depiction of America’s deepest problem. After being criticized for their apolitical handling of torture-as-army-tactic in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, Bigelow and Boam are unapologetically aligned to deliver a message in ‘Detroit’. For the most part, they do so merely by coldly sticking to the facts and presenting it through riveting cinematic means that trap you with the characters and force you to live through the events. The result is powerful and unforgettable. It’s just a shame that the filmmakers struggle slightly to set up and conclude their film.
‘Detroit’ could have been a masterpiece that vividly examined a complex issue through a single, tragic true story. Instead, it’s merely a damn good film that accomplishes that goal for 90 minutes, then struggles when hammering the message home a little too hard. Perhaps Bigelow and Boam didn’t realize how intense their central scenario would feel on-screen until they saw it and didn’t realize they’d overcompensated elsewhere until it was too late. Regardless, ‘Detroit’ is a devastating film with potent cultural value. The movie demands to be experienced, regardless of any piddling flaws or nitpicks.