The terrifying middle act of docudrama Detroit might be the best thing Kathryn Bigelow's ever made, though it's surrounded by clumsiness in the film's bookending material
With the same you-are-there handheld aesthetic that characterised her Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, the opening of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit – following a brief animated prologue that contextualises Motor City's racial tensions – gives viewers a reconstruction of the event of overzealous police violence that kicked off days of rioting in the eponymous city in 1967. One of the most destructive civil disturbances of its kind in the history of the United States, it saw the Michigan Army National Guard being deployed and President Lyndon B Johnson sending in airborne infantry divisions.
Despite that opening, Detroit is not an exploration of the entire uprising; even the 143-minute runtime it has wouldn’t do that subject justice. Instead, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal focus on one of the more disturbing events that took place among the chaos.
On the third day of the riots, a dozen innocent civilians – ten black men, two white women – were tortured, and a few shot dead, by white cops who suspected one of them of firing sniper shots from the window of the Algiers Motel, in which they were subsequently made prisoners. In truth, there was no sniper: the suspected weapon had been a harmless starter pistol fired by one young man, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), amid a discussion and demonstration of how black people live 24/7 under the threat of violence.
Following a lengthy getting to know the various players who end up in the motel (including the cops, led by a terrifying Will Poulter), Bigelow devotes the middle and longest section of Detroit to the motel raid. Incorporating the cinematic language of home invasion horror, and mostly filmed in extreme close-up (you can almost feel the sweat and drying blood on people’s foreheads), the reconstruction has a viscerally upsetting force. There is no careful hand-holding to distance the viewer, who is made to be a witness right there in the middle of the horror. Credit must obviously be given to Bigelow’s uniformly excellent cast; it feels unfair to single out any actor for praise, but relative unknowns Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore, as two teens with ties to eventual soul music stars The Dramatics, are particular standouts.
While that centrepiece section justifies a recommendation all on its own, the material that makes up the rest of Detroit is not without some problems. That is not to say the bookending stretches are actively bad, but there’s different kinds of clumsiness peppered throughout that either jar or evoke the feeling of missed opportunity.
Much of the film’s scattershot final chapter exemplifies the latter. The section concerns the ensuing days and months after the shootings, but with significantly less of the fine character detail that informs what precedes it. For most of a roughly half-hour stretch that’s both breezy and long-winded, the role of various surviving players is reduced to their factual relevance only – as figures in the attempted pursuit of justice for those terrorised or killed, mostly just popping back up for testimony. Bar a little bit of material with John Boyega’s security guard caught up in the conflict, Bigelow only really examines the lingering trauma of one of the survivors, and instead focuses this last section on scraps of the investigation that would have the same impact if just presented as onscreen text.
Regarding the issue of jarring moments, one such example actually concerns the tail end of the motel stretch, where the same aforementioned survivor escapes and encounters a white police officer streets away, who is horrified by the man’s beaten condition and drives him to hospital – taking him to his patrol car, the officer exclaims, “Who could do this to someone?”
Mark Boal’s screenplay for Detroit, as explained in an end credits title card, is partially based on recollections of witnesses involved. Whether or not that officer’s words match the victim’s memories of the moment, on film they comes across like a strange sudden interjection of "Not All White Cops Are Bad". Perhaps not intentional, but in light of the film’s obvious topicality regarding continued systemic racism in American policing (the more change there is, the more things stay the same), the moment stands out as a particularly ham-fisted blunder. That scene and other bits of questionable writing do nothing to dispel the physical revulsion and rage induced by the film’s depiction of the Algiers Motel incident, but they do speak to Boal and Bigelow’s struggles with framing the repercussions of the tragedy.
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