Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit has an important story to tell, but what story is it?
An animated prologue, with intertitles over images from African-American expressionist Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series paintings, evokes the story of the Great Migration of African-Americans in the decades after the First World War from the rural South to cities of the North.
Early scenes depict antagonistic interactions between heavy-handed officers and resentful locals, precipitating what would become the deadliest, most destructive urban riot in postwar history and the terrible climax of the race riots of the “Long Hot Summer” of 1967. Over the course of five days, there were 43 deaths, thousands of injuries and arrests, and hundreds of homes and buildings destroyed.
We see local police and firefighters receive backup from state police, the National Guard and the Army. Early scenes introduce us to a long lineup of characters. Some of these are real people, notably Melvin Dismukes (The Force Awakens’ John Boyega), a black part-time security guard hired to protect a store from looters; soul singer Cleveland Larry Reed (Algee Smith) of the Dramatics, a vocal group hoping to land a record deal; and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), Reed’s friend, who sometimes acted as valet for the Dramatics.
Others are fictionalized versions of real people, notably an out-of-control racist cop named Philip Krauss (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’s Will Poulter), who, in his first scene, shoots in the back a looter with a bag of groceries.
These and other story threads eventually converge at the Algiers Motel, or rather an annex to the hotel, a manor home gone to seed. Here a film that began (as its name suggests) as a sweeping, shakycam documentary-like portrait of citywide social unrest narrows into a grueling, claustrophobic immersion in shakycam horror.
I confess I went into Detroit not really knowing the story that has come to be called the “Algiers Motel Incident,” which began as a police hunt for a sniper and ended with three unarmed black teenaged males shot dead by police at close range and nine other individuals traumatized by hours of appalling physical and psychological abuse.
The interminable central act, dramatizing the events at the Algiers, overflows with impotent rage and horror. The tone blurs the lines between historical drama, horror and thriller, with Krauss as a relentless monster devoid of psychological complexity, if not humanity. He’s the worst of bad apples, though not the only one, and the good apples (we do see some) are far from the Algiers that night.
The presence of two teenage suburban white girls — Julie Ann and Karen (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) — among the black male guests enrages the cops, who suspect the young women of prostitution, but resent their presumed availability to black men. A leering taunt from an officer might seem heavy-handed, but it turns out it’s straight from witness accounts.
And that, really, is the subtext of the punishing gauntlet of horrors to which Detroit subjects us: The worst of it seems over the top, too egregious and nightmarish to be true — yet it really happened more or less this way.
Or, at least, Bigelow and her frequent collaborator Mark Boal (with whom she made The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) have crafted from conflicting testimony and incomplete evidence a reasonable version of what happened, or how it might have happened, half a century ago.
Is that enough? The ambitious opening act, with its stab at historical context and local vignettes, suggests higher aims.
The animated prologue sketches in a few quick sentences the oppressive conditions in black neighborhoods, telling rather than showing the viewer, “Change was inevitable. It was only a matter of how and when.” Is this perhaps intended to color the characters in the coming riot sequence as mere pawns of historical necessity, doing only what must be done?
If so, that next sequence, depicting a routine but ill-fated vice-squad raid on an unlicensed after-hours bar — a “blind pig” in local parlance — fail to confirm the point, along with the scenes that follow.
“A riot is the language of the unheard,” Martin Luther King Jr. said more than once. Riots occur, King said, due to conditions “that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.”
When locals see patrons hauled out of the blind pig standing on the sidewalk waiting for police vans, they become defiant. Objects are thrown. Somewhere between that and the moment after the police depart in which a storefront window is smashed and bystanders are transformed into looters and arsonists, something is missing: some insight into why these individuals feel they have no other alternative.
“I need you to not destroy your own neighborhoods!” urges hometown Congressman John Conyers Jr. (Laz Alonso) from the roof of a car surrounded by unruly constituents who have no ears to hear his plea of restraint.
The rioters’ actions may be indefensible, but as with Krauss’ psychopathic abuse of the Algiers Motel patrons — and the police culture that made Krauss’ reign of terror possible — the filmmakers’ task is to illuminate, not merely to recount. At least, this film appears to want to be more illuminating than it actually seems to be.
For a moment, in an early scene, the film hovers on another tell-don’t-show shortcut: An officer in a patrol car cruising momentarily quiet streets laments to his partner how “we” have failed “them.” But this seemingly liberal sentiment is horrifyingly undermined, and we don’t even get that much.
For a striking counterexample, witness a relatively low-key scene in which Dismukes, Boyega’s security guard, spies a number of National Guard troops stationed outside the store he’s guarding and, against the advice of a companion, makes a pre-emptive move to befriend them, bringing them a pot of hot coffee.
In Dismukes’ measured composure and studiously casual banter, and the affable manner with which one of the appreciative troops drops the n-word asking Dismukes when the riots might end, is more insight into the daily stresses faced by even clean-living residents of Detroit’s Near West Side than in the rest of the first act.
Another important moment occurs at the Algiers, as a guest named Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), introduced as a friend of Julie Ann and Karen, offers an impromptu dramatization of excessive police force that actually leads to disastrous consequences.
No shots are fired, but police reasonably think otherwise — though their response is anything but reasonable. What follows is both a sickening historical re-enactment and an audience endurance test.
One can certainly defend the harrowing extremes and the grinding length of this sequence as cinematic form following function. Longtime moviegoers may be jaded to violence and suffering, but we’re also accustomed to moments of respite and relief. Here there is no relief; the only escape is the theater exit (or, eventually, the pause or power button). The Algiers detainees didn’t even have that.
One can also critique it as exploitative, as a form of torture porn — or, more persuasively, as outrage porn. The onscreen evils mirror what really happened, but the very extremity of evil, the clear lines of sadism, stupidity and suffering, leave very little to think about, other than how evil the evil is.
Whether outrage overwhelms empathy for the victims perhaps depends on the viewer. Empathy should, of course, move one to outrage, but the reverse is far from the case. In retrospect, I find myself looking back on the film with empathy before outrage, making me glad I saw it.
It doesn’t help that Krauss is such an extreme psycho (however representative that may be of the real cop behind his character) that he doesn’t necessarily tell us much of anything about ordinary or institutional racism or excessive force. That there is ultimately little or no justice does of course reveal something about unequal justice, but that’s in the denouement. I guess Krauss’ very flagrancy bespeaks his confidence that, good cops aside, he’ll have no trouble getting away with it.
Another issue is how many characters are thinly established — not that there’s much room for fine shades of characterization in such duress. On the other hand, that only makes controlled performances from Boyega and Anthony Mackie as an unemployed Vietnam veteran more rewarding.
A number of important questions go seemingly unanswered. Why does no one present tell the police the real story about the gunshots they heard? Why is a private security guard permitted to wander the scene of an ongoing police investigation into an active-shooter scenario — particularly when the security guard is black and the white officers are terrorizing black detainees?
Finally, granted that prosecutors would be likely to target Dismukes early on as a suspect, once they heard his story, why would they not make him a witness rather than a defendant? It seems they really want a conviction (it’s the judge, not they, who suppresses — entirely legally — a key piece of evidence).
A wrenching moment in the denouement has a traumatized Cleveland turn his back on his Motown dreams, deciding amid the rubble of this life-shattering ordeal that he doesn’t “want to make white people dance.” Instead, to eke out a living he turns to gospel music.
A closing title tells us that the real Cleveland still performs in a church choir in Detroit. If the sentiment about not wanting to make white people dance is authentic, one can only hope that 50 years of gospel music and gospel preaching have brought him a measure of healing and perhaps forgiveness.
Caveat Spectator: Graphic bloody violence, including fatal shootings; extreme psychological torture; fleeting nudity (a woman’s dress is forcibly torn almost completely off); sexual dialogue, obscene language and references to prostitution. Mature viewing; discretion advised.