In the 1960s, economic discord, the struggle for Civil Rights and unrestrained police brutality tore cities apart across America. Forty years on, with Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Black Lives Matter, voter registration, Baltimore and Ferguson- it is clear that nothing much has changed.
This I feel is the subtext of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s latest collaboration Detroit, as its difficult to see why she would revisit the event with such urgency now. ‘It’s time we knew’ and ‘the true story behind one of the most terrifying secrets in history’ declare the advertisements. Yet this mixture of vagueness and sensationalism is pervasive within the work itself. Detroit troubles for the wrong reasons. What Bigelow and Boal deliver is a recounting that lacks real depth and considered focus. It is far too narrowed and intensified to penetrate further than numbing horror and weary head-shaking. It made me tremble with its stark, crass depiction of police brutality but, crucially, it was lacking in genuine empathy for those afflicted by racial injustice- past and present.
The fateful night in 1967 that opens Detroit is already smouldering through Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography and Bigelow’s direction. Tension is in the air, and Bigelow has no issues whatsoever in building and sustaining it throughout- keeping it on the knife edge before spiralling out of control. A police raid on an unlicensed club, where two black veterans are being celebrated on their return from Vietnam, is the spark that initiates the riot. Responses from local and federal government are typical and ineffective: Congressmen call for peace and the National Guard descend with their guns and tanks. The escalating riots, depicted with a seamless fusion of archival and recreated footage, continue with the curfew, arrests, looting and murder becoming part of a fraught and ruinous urban landscape. Here Bigelow, recalling her gritty, documentary-style seen in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, makes her directorial intentions known: this will not be domestic, but war correspondence in the American mainland. Ultimately it isn’t much correspondence at all- honing in on a symptom of the riot (a single if particularly bloody incident) that both director and writer struggle to suggest has broader implications and deeper causations within it (the only other exposition given is in a tonally jarring prologue inspired by artist Jacob Lawrence’s murals on The Great Migration). For a film that has been thoughtlessly declared as ‘an anatomy of a riot’, it spends so little time in one or exploring the nuances in starting one (so far from Ralph Ellison’s prescient, existential foray into the Harlem riots in his novel Invisible Man).
Several days into the riot, aspiring Motown artists Larry (Algee Smith) and Fred (Jacob Latimore) decide to lay low in the Algiers Motel after their debut gig is broken up. A prank with some guests goes horribly wrong and soon the Detroit police (headed by the young, vicious officer Krauss played by Will Poulter), the National Guard and bystander store-guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) descend upon the motel. The depiction of this incident marks the terroristic centre-piece of Bigelow’s film: a forty-minute crucible in which institutional corruption, unrestrained prejudice and personal cowardice boil over. Life or death is decided upon a whim: a defiant turn of the head; the distraction of the officer; a misunderstood order. However, my feelings through this prolonged agony began in shock turned to chilling fear but later lingered in desensitised numbness. It is truly disturbing, but such a way as to make me look at this depiction askance. I wasn’t only disturbed by what was in the sequence, as in how it was constructed: a cinematic ‘experience’ of racist police brutality that verged on gratuity in length and violence.
This is barely raised above racist torture-porn by the slivers of interior life that are occasionally given to those being brutalised. Smith’s confident performance is sympathetic enough, even devastating by its conclusion, as the consequences of the night bear on his future- his aspirations, carefree attitude shrivelled up. Boyega also brings a quiet, troubled presence in Dismukes- attempting to be reasonable and mediate but knows, deep down, that he could get the same treatment as those against the wall. Poulter offers a petulant, self-righteous sadism that just pushes the ‘bad apple’ theory of individual racists and imbeciles amid the dysfunctional but ultimately over pressurised and well-meaning police force. Convincing acting is not Detroit’s problem, however unethical what Bigelow has asked of her actors to do. Yet for all its spatial intensity, Bigelow’s focus on these individuals (more participants than people) is scatty and disinterested. Snippets are offered, such as Anthony Mackie’s maligned, dignifiedly defiant veteran, but are quickly snatched away in order to return to the real ‘horror-show’. If only Bigelow and Boal had taken some time in the film to understand, develop and explore the perspective of one or a few of Detroit’s historical figures- it wouldn’t feel so emotionally hollow and distant by the end.
Detroit is a dubious and disappointing rendering of these events and the people within them. Like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, the desire to foreground the visceral physical and psychological brutality in America’s long history of racism overcomes any further inquiry or insight into this subject matter. It neuters that impulse for self-reflection or activism. It merely comes across as another ‘worthy’ film that won’t shudder anything that maintains institutional racism nor really change attitudes to police violence against black Americans. It should, of course, but it won’t. So then what and whom is Detroit for? If the issue remains a wilfully blind ignorance on the part of white people to continuing racial injustice, Bigelow and Boal might instead question why and how this indulgent ignorance is enabled and sustained, instead of only presenting black bodies being continually tortured and traumatised to shed a few cheap tears. There is nothing so pointed or probing in Detroit. It is a rare moment when a film’s unity of content and form work in such a reductive way as here. With the content’s fixation on a symptom of the riot, the form, in terms of its visual and emotional effect, is also symptomatic. In other words, Detroit might have the crude impact of a brick, but it utterly fails to understand the hands, heads and hearts of those throwing them.