Motor City is burning: Kathryn Bigelow’s new film immerses itself in 1967’s violent upheaval.
Detroit, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal
• • •
Detroit is the third collaboration between director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, following the Oscar-winning bomb-detonation drama The Hurt Locker (2008) and the epic, controversial reconstruction of Osama bin Laden’s demise, Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Detroit is a long, unwieldy docudrama that further underscores its creators’ status as American cinema’s preeminent purveyors of shock-and-awe spectacle—but to what end?
The film begins with a too-brief prologue in which the work of two African-American cultural titans is harnessed to provide the social and historical context sorely absent from the ensuing narrative. Text written by historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. is overlaid on a series of computer-animated panels selected from painter Jacob Lawrence’s beautiful Migration Series (1940–41). They combine for a whistle-stop tour of the mass domestic migration by African Americans from the south to the north of America and its effects, including “white flight,” and racist institutional backlash leading to a rash of violent conflagrations in the 1960s in northern urban centers. Philadelphia, Chicago, and Newark all erupted, as did Detroit, where, according to some sources, the five-day upheaval left forty-three dead, nearly one thousand two hundred injured, over seven thousand two hundred arrested, and more than two thousand buildings razed.
After the prologue, Bigelow’s film employs a tripartite structure, starting in July 1967 with the civil unrest that exploded on Detroit’s Near West Side after police raided a party at an unlicensed after-hours club (a “blind pig”). Its middle—and longest—segment depicts an incident at a nearby motel, the Algiers, where three black men were killed, and nine others, including seven black men and two white women, were reportedly beaten and tortured by a riot task force comprising members of the Detroit Police Department, Michigan State Police, and the National Guard, who claimed to be responding to sniper fire from the complex. (In Detroit, the main culprits are three openly racist young Detroit cops played by Ben O’Toole, Jack Reynor, and Will Poulter, a baby-faced Brit who gives a chilling performance.) The film closes with a quieter, more reflective passage addressing the legal and personal fallout of the prior chaos. Threaded throughout, with varying degrees of dramatic success, are the stories of several characters who find themselves marooned at the Algiers, including the front man of soul group the Dramatics, Larry Reed (charismatic newcomer Algee Smith), and the conflicted, granite-jawed security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega, whose woeful underutilization calls to mind James Baldwin’s description of Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones as being “not really allowed to do anything more than walk around looking like a spaniel.”)
It’s worth noting that in spite of Detroit’s grandiose marketing tagline inviting prospective viewers to uncover the “true story of one of the most terrifying secrets in American history”—the “secret” being what went down at the Algiers—the film is speculative. In 1968, journalist John Hersey released the book The Algiers Motel Incident, for which he consulted forensic reports, and spoke to survivors, the victims’ families, and some law enforcement personnel involved in the raid. Out of respect for his interviewees, Hersey promised that his book would not form the basis of a film, and that the rights would not be up for grabs. Unable to draw upon this authoritative source, Boal and Bigelow have relied largely on a combination of contemporary testimonials (mostly from the real-life Reed) and recently commissioned research for their narrative.
The contested truth is less of an issue in Detroit’s first section, which finds Bigelow, a consummate action filmmaker, crafting elaborately staged and impressively mounted mayhem, even if the formal potpourri (haphazardly integrated archive footage; contemporary footage treated to look vintage; onscreen captions that carelessly describe the unrest as “riots,” when “uprisings” or “rebellion” would surely hew closer to the film’s ideological standpoint) is needlessly assaultive. Barry Ackroyd’s mobile cinematography darts and probes, while the crowd-scene choreography achieves a paradoxical requisite of immersive cinema: the viewer feels simultaneously dazed and spatially oriented.
But Detroit runs into trouble at the Algiers Motel, where Bigelow and Boal opt to turn disputed history into a grueling endurance test for the viewer. The set-up of the sequence itself is problematic. While the supposed “sniper fire” from a starter gun is the subject of much speculation—Hersey’s reporting suggests it never happened—Boal’s presentation of the incident makes little psychological sense. He has a young black man, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), deliver an eloquent disquisition on the vicious racism of American police before, inexplicably, firing the gun at said police himself, to teach them a lesson. Boal uses this as a clumsy way to catalyze events, and to shoehorn into the script repeated mentions of a “toy gun,” a reference calibrated to evoke thoughts of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, shot to death in 2014 by Cleveland police while in possession of a plastic pistol. When the police arrive at the Algiers, the sequence segues into a set piece of graphic murder, beatings, and sexual abuse (of the two white women). There is a particularly ghoulish moment when Poulter’s cop laughingly demands that his captives sing and pray like they are in church at gunpoint—perhaps a grim reference to the racist murder of nine black Charleston churchgoers in 2015.
The filmmakers may claim that such extremity is necessary, and they are clearly at pains to present Detroit as a timely intervention, as relevant to present-day horrors as the era it portrays, and perhaps as crucial to influencing the public mood as the widely broadcast footage of civil rights protestors being beaten on the streets of Selma in 1965. Yet in today’s technologically augmented dystopia, where a viral infection of black suffering has spread so that anyone with an Internet connection can witness the final moments, at the hands of police, of hitherto unknown African Americans like Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Samuel DuBose, Philando Castile, and the aforementioned Rice, Detroit’s bludgeoning insistence on graphically depicting state violence plays like overkill; a semi-pornography of abuse that can only numb or, viewed by the wrong eyes, titillate. In one of the darkest moments I’ve experienced in a cinema for some time, I caught myself wondering whether the horror shown in the Algiers is so detailed, so unremitting, that white supremacists might actually enjoy watching it.
For all its technical craft, occasional grace notes—most of which are crammed into a moving coda concerning Larry’s spiritual reckoning with intractable American racism—and its smorgasbord of alert performances from a game young cast, Detroit is difficult to recommend to anyone already feeling emotionally pulverized by the ongoing spectacle of anti-black American racism. As noisy and disorderly as the unrest it presents, Bigelow and Boal’s latest is perilously close to resembling a bull let loose in a china shop where the china has already been smashed.
Hailing from London and now based in New York, Ashley Clark is senior programmer of cinema at BAM in Brooklyn. He is also a contributor to publications including Film Comment, Sight & Sound, The Guardian, and Vice, and a regular guest critic on BBC television and radio. His first book is Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (The Critical Press, 2015).