Well, this will be problematic.
Before I even begin to review Detroit, first I need to address the controversy surrounding the film: numerous moviegoers (and critics even) are up in arms over the fact that Detroit, a racially charged drama based on the atrocities that occurred on July 25th, 1967 at the Algiers Motel during the 12th Street Riots, is directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Despite Bigelow being an adept, talented, and compassionate filmmaker, her white skin presents a problem to African American moviegoers who believe she might lack the necessary insight about systemic racism and police brutality that an African American director would innately possess.
Putting this criticism into prose, Angelica Jade’s absolutely scorching review for RogerEbert.com posits that, “Detroit is a hollow spectacle, displaying rank racism and countless deaths that has nothing to say about race, the justice system, police brutality, or the city that gave it its title.”
After seeing the film myself, I can say that Jade’s viewpoint is valid and has merit. Who am I, a white woman raised on the mean streets of Des Moines, Iowa’s wealthiest and whitest neighborhood, to say otherwise.
I can only really offer my perspective on Detroit as a cinephile, and from my point of view, the reasons for Detroit having nothing new or revolutionary to say about race or police brutality may have less to do with “the white gaze” (though it is there) and more to do with Kathryn Bigelow’s extremely impersonal filmmaking style where the audience feels like voyeurs and witnesses to the events being depicted on screen.
For example: Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow’s previous film, was a procedural drama and thriller about the decade long hunt to find Osama Bin Laden. Despite lacking a specific thematic undercurrent or relevant message, Zero Dark Thirty was great because it encaptured that event, moment, and time in history perfectly. Essentially, ZDT was a newspaper article or a nonfiction novel in movie form: here’s what happened, here’s how it happened, and here’s why it happened, now draw your own conclusions.
Understandably, on issues such as race, this style of filmmaking can and will rub many viewers the wrong way. Afterall, racism is a contentious issue that is ubiquitous throughout American society (Christ, we had a fucking Civil War over the morality of literally owning someone a mere 160 years ago), and an African American has more of a right than anyone else to either criticize or praise this film.
On that front, their opinion matters most.
For my own opinion however, I found Detroit to be in the same vein as Bigelow’s previous work in that it directly inserts the viewer into a place and time in history, and Detroit puts the audience into the mindset of the African American community during the 12th Street Riots.
The conflict begins when unrest immediately follows a mass police raid where dozens of people were arrested for attending a welcome home party for Vietnam Veterans. Many onlookers who witnessed this gross abuse of police power were enraged and conducted anarchic actions such as looting local businesses and burning buildings.
Using the resulting chaos as a backdrop, Detroit mostly takes place on the third night of rioting and focuses on a disparate group of characters connected to a historical event that would later become known as the Algiers Motel “Incident,” though the term “Incident” is a misnomer: dropping my trousers and taking a shit on the sidewalk is an incident, but the unjust murders of three people and the torture of others by racist cops is more than just a mere “incident.”
At the Algiers, we’re introduced to and sympathize with the eventual victims of the tragedy ranging from Larry (Algee Smith), an aspiring Motown musician who dreams to hit the big time with a record deal, to Greene (Anthony Mackie), a Vietnam vet, to two traveling white women in Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) and Julie (Hannah Murray), and many others.
Their festive night is interrupted when the Detroit PD raids the Algiers Motel after responding to an alleged sniper attack, and racist, morally grotesque Detroit Police Officer Krauss (played by a punchable Will Poulter) kills an unarmed man during the assault. After searching the building up and down, the Detroit P.D. couldn’t find a rifle or any incriminating evidence on the premises, yet Krauss order’s the remaining survivors into a hallway and begins interrogating and torturing the motel’s occupants in order to find the nonexistent rifle and have one of the innocent victims confess to a nonexistent crime because Krauss is sadistic motherfucker that killed someone and isn’t going to leave the crime scene empty handed.
Detroit is disturbing to say the least. Even though I viewed the film from a cushioned recliner seat, my discomfort was palpable. Bigelow’s film thrusts the audience inside this tragedy with surgical like precision: the hallway is overcrowded and cramped, the camera is extremely close to the actor’s bloody and sweaty faces to the point that the viewer feels claustrophobic, and shaky cam is applied correctly and gives the audience a feel for this fraught moment in time.
Detroit walks on a line thinner than a spider’s web by depicting the drama as intense and nerve wracking all while never veering into exploitation territory. Make no mistake, this movie is not fun, and it’s definitely not exciting. If anything, Detroit is a horror movie and is terrifying due to how Krauss brutalizes the victims due to their race, and we’re stranded in that hallway with that monster knowing that the law will be flexible enough to let an asshole like him walk free at the end of the day.
Krauss and his cohorts call the shots, and no one is more aware of this sad reality than Dismukes (an excellent John Boyega) who is a local private security guard who accompanies the Detroit police officers to the Algiers. Dismukes is a kind hearted and misunderstood man: he’s an African American man that is often derided as Uncle Tom for being cooperative with the authorities and protecting property rather than torching it. Through his actions, we see that he more or less surrenders to an incredibly nihilistic viewpoint that the people of his race have to live in a world where they are second class to whites and resisting their supremacy is futile. To him, this flawed world we occupy is unchangeable; all you can do is survive in it.
At the Algiers Dismukes wants to help as many people as possible survive the night, and he tries to keep the officers calm so the survivors can leave in peace. However, he never takes direct actions against the officers, which makes him complicit in their crimes. He desires so badly to help the victims escape this deadly situation, but in doing so, he has to aid the monstrous cops in some capacity so that they don’t turn their guns on him.
It’s quite sad.
By Detroit’s end, the viewer is left exhausted. Watching Bigelow’s film is a grueling process on how much pain, suffering, and injustice you’re willing to experience at this particular trip to the cinema.
Detroit is a very tough film to sit through, but it is a necessary movie going experience. Despite occurring in the Summer of 1967, events like the Algiers Motel Incident still happen quite regularly in America today, and we need stories and movies like Detroit highlight our society’s systemic problems so we can create a better future.
Until then, more unnecessary blood will be shed, and more innocents will ultimately be killed.
Come on society, get your shit together.