Bigelow’s ‘Detriot:’ a tense exploration of race relations with contemporary implications
Nicholas Ottone | Monday, August 28, 2017
All through Kathryn Bigelow’s new film “Detroit” runs a strain of anger — the titular city a racially riotous powder keg sparked by a seemingly routine bar bust. Working from a fiercely journalistic script written by common collaborator Mark Boal, Bigelow of “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” fame focuses her camera on a different war, the battle for America’s soul still raging through Ferguson, Missouri, and Charlottesville, Virginia, today: the struggle for justice alive in Detroit’s summer of 1967. However, despite its best intentions, “Detroit” rarely reaches the righteous evocative heights it seems so eager to reach, posing messy questions to society without the empathetic character work necessary to ground such difficult subject matter.
“Detroit” begins with a prologue explaining white flight and the worsening conditions in the city’s crammed homes. Soon, police break up an unauthorized bar where black vets are celebrating their long-awaited return, sparking riots that engulf the streets. Looting is rampant, and black politicians implore their constituents to cease destroying their own neighborhoods. The tensions in the city rise with every passing day, as officers like Phillip Krauss (Will Poulter) indiscriminately shoot unarmed black men with stolen goods. The Dramatics, a Motown band led by Larry Reed (Algee Smith), has their concert canceled, and Reed seeks refuge with his friend at the Algiers Motel. When a guest at the motel fires a toy gun at the police, Krauss and his partners unrelentingly interrogate and threaten every resident of the motel, while an on-duty black security guard, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), arrives on the scene soon after to find tragedy.
Bigelow constructs her plot and characters toward a killer second act, a remarkably tense sequence unparalleled in her filmography, narrowing down to one room, a handful of characters, and a clear power dynamic. “Detroit” begins and ends as an expansive portrait of the city’s racial tensions, reveling in an objective documentarian view to expose and undermine institutions, but this second act sequence is essentially a horror and a survival tale. Poulter portrays Krauss as a thoroughly sadistic, racist cop, turning in a chillingly evil performance. Boyega’s Dismukes toes the line between law enforcement and the black victims, occupying a space of fascinating ambiguity. His character embodies the archetype of the “Uncle Tom,” yet it constantly affirms why his actions are instrumental to saving lives. Frequent Bigelow cinematographer Barry Ackroyd expertly places audiences within these terrifying scenes, and Boal’s script continually evokes comparisons to Ferguson and contemporary policy brutality cases to remind audiences that these atrocities still occur.
However, “Detroit” fails when it approaches the terror of racism. Throughout the film’s first half, Krauss dominates the picture, leaving audiences in search of a protagonist. Although Reed eventually fulfills this duty, the film immediately shifts into horror-movie mode, transforming the black guests of the motel into faceless victims. As an audience, we do not spend adequate time with Reed or Dismukes to allow a strong empathetic connection to form and, therefore, while we naturally fear for the lives of human beings on screen, we are given little beyond this as reason to care. The film keeps concepts of racism and segregation abstract because of its imposed objectivism, which manifests as a somewhat cold emotional distance. Other films of racial violence, such as Ryan Coogler’s realistic “Fruitvale Station” and Jordan Peele’s heightened “Get Out,” thrive because of the empathy they build for their protagonists. Perhaps Bigelow means to present a clear-eyed view of such violence, connecting the clear racism of the Algier Motel incident to more subtly racist mechanisms at work in the present-day criminal justice system. In this she succeeds, but the victims remain largely nameless, a mass of black bodies destroyed by white institutions, the problems destructive but abstract.
“Detroit” asks every audience member a simple question: Why? Why did this happen, and why do these events echo through history, reverberating through Ferguson and Charlottesville? Bigelow asks the messy questions necessary for a story such as this, even when the problem remains faceless, through utilizing her impressive skills with tension and suspense, crafting an alternately expansive and intimate epic that demands to be seen.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5