Kathryn Bigalow has never shied away from hard-hitting and politically current stories. The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty are typical examples that have crossed that topical boundary. But her latest film Detroit cuts emotionally deeper.
As I watched Detroit, I’m reminded of Ava DuVernay’s 13th, a Netflix documentary which puts into historical context a chronological narrative to explain the plight of African-Americans through the abolition of slavery to mass incarceration through the exploitative loophole of the 13th amendment. Through distinct moments in history, 13th also showcases the growing militarization of the police and how political policies have shaped a social injustice and harmful vocabulary that is clearly divided along racial lines. Detroit fittingly becomes an example case to illustrate that.
The subject of war on terror which served as the backdrop for The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty was a distant affair, events taking place halfway across the world. In Detroit, Bigalow brings her trademark sense of terror and fear unto our doorsteps, handling a very sensitive, difficult yet socially relevant topic of race relations. Detroit is based on a true story examining the multiple murders at the Algiers Motel during the Detroit riots in 1967.
Detroit goes through several distinct styles to capture the full context of this story. The first act mixes documentary and dramatizations. The second act takes place at the scene of the crime with its claustrophobic nature. It traps the audience in the brutal shock as if you were lined up against the wall and aggressively intimidated by the police. The third and final act switches tone into a courtroom drama to showcase the aftermath.
The switching of the styles can be a little jarring and unfocused, especially when trying to establish all the centralised characters. For a story of this scale which tries to encompass everything, it slightly suffers and on reflection it might have made a great mini-series. It would have allowed more time for the story to breathe with focal characters instead of cramming all the necessary points in a two-hour and twenty-three minute runtime.
The success of Detroit is centred on how Bigalow builds the tension. On the outside Bigalow brings the war zone home as the city erupts from a struggling frustration to a destructive chaos. But it’s on the inside with the claustrophobic activities of the interrogation scene which bring to light the terrible tragedy at the Algiers Motel. The camera is always up close and personal, always invading someone’s personal space and always relentless. When you add the barrage of words and forceful intentions by the police, it becomes a cauldron of criminal escalation and violence where people are not judged by their character or their truth as a human being but by the colour of their skin. When the situation becomes untenable, that fearful tension is further fulfilled by a complicit and coerced silence to re-shape the story.
“I’m just gonna assume you’re all criminals.” – Krauss
There’s a certain nuance that Detroit lacks in comparison to Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Detroit focusses on the brutality and the menacing overtones of the police officers. They play an elaborate and psychologically intense game. Similar to the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, this game theory is designed to put people through an intense situation in hope to gain vital information. In this particular situation, it’s the location of the shooter and the gun used to fire at the police and the national guard nearby. However there was no weapon despite the searches and yet the game still continued. One by one, each occupant at the motel is taken to different rooms and given a mock execution to put a psychological pressure on the others to force out a confession.
Through this you get an outstanding and career best performance in Will Poulter as Krauss. There is no doubt this was a difficult role but he clearly articulates the sickening and repulsive nature of the crime.
Detroit understands the technical mechanics of the brutality, going as far to explain what that judgement feels like using Carl (Jason Mitchell) as an example. But the psychological fear is where it slightly underperformed. Get Out uses the psychological fear reconfirming its known and everyday existence. Get Out is completely different in context from Detroit but it understands the universal nature of that fear amongst the black community and how that fear can build and transcend into your worst nightmare.
Bigalow tries to compensate that with Larry (Algee Smith), the lead singer of The Dramatics. They arrive in Detroit to perform on stage but the opportunity is cut short by the riots. He gets caught up in the incident at the Algiers and suffers life changing consequences. While that is one aspect, it also represents a brief snapshot in the same way Dismukes (the excellent John Boyega) is portrayed. Obviously it’s down to the director’s prerogative but it would have been nice to see more of that because Detroit can be viewed as lopsided in its direction.
But ultimately Detroit didn’t shock me and don’t worry I am a human being. It didn’t shock me because this film wasn’t directed at me. Its education is designed on the intense fear experienced by the black community but it didn’t confirm anything new. The ultimate argument the film portrays is that the injustice still continues. That’s a painful truth that I’m fully aware of.
The best argument about Detroit is that it’s primarily aimed towards voices still in denial, voices lost in excuses and ignorance summed up in paraphrased commentary:
“They should have listened and complied with the police officers, otherwise they would be alive.” – well the characters of Dismukes and Greene (Anthony Mackie) were compliant. Dismukes who was caught between a rock and a hard place tries to calm the situation down. Greene didn’t have anything to do with the incident but was physically assaulted by the officers. He goes as far to prove his credentials to the officers as a military soldier from the Vietnam War yet was greeted with more physical abuse and claims of a fake ID. The harsh reality from this circumstance is despite being in positions of respectable authority, they still ended up as suspects.
“The police officers were doing their jobs in an intense situation.” – Again no one is denying the fact that police officers do a difficult job. Detroit distinguishes a clear line in saying that not every police officer is racist or prone to acts of prejudice and brutality. But there are those who go beyond the words “protect and serve”. They use intimidation and excessive force. Just like the character of Krauss, they abuse, take advantage to exercise an authority and deliberately change the narrative. How many times have we heard “I feared for my safety” to justify actions? You could argue that some are not fit to wear the badge and uniform because their actions bring that institution into disrepute that can destroy the trust between the communities and the authority.
“Black lives matter? Well all lives matter. Blue lives matter etc.” – of course all lives matter but there is a specificity that is explored in that movement. They highlight how acts of discrimination and prejudice have worked against ethnic minorities. When the extreme occurs and the justice system fails them, those names are added to the long and familiar list of lost lives and unanswered questions. How many police officers are prosecuted? The last third of the film highlighted that stark difference – the prosecution bringing up the background of the victims and dismissing their accounts as if they were on trial for the murdered individuals.
Whilst not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, Detroit forces us to ask those deep social questions. This is not a debate on the accuracy of the events. Similar to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Bigalow’s depicts a specific, emotional feeling – the sensation of the brutality and intimidation and the lack of justice. However due to the structural tone of the film, it’s not as tightly constructed as it should have been.
However, because Detroit feels timeless in its subject matter where the current and social parallels are so obvious, you get the overall sense that until everyone engages in the debate about police brutality and systematic racism, it will feel like a never-ending cycle in a country that has never properly healed from its deep-rooted wounds or has never reconciled with its historical past.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “an unjust law is no law at all.” You can’t progressively move forward if the problem keeps resurfacing.
That in essence is what makes Detroit an effective film. Whilst it could have been better in streamlining the events, its emotional impact is undeniable. It’s authentically raw and brutal and because it makes you uncomfortable, it is very hard to escape that reaction.