The main character of Detroit is a historical atrocity. There are people in the movie, too, some of whom really existed and some of whom are composites, but for much of its runtime, the movie treats them as components of a larger tragedy. These characters careen toward an incident that results in the deaths of three people — specifically the deaths of three black teenagers at the hands of white policemen who were later acquitted after pleading self-defense.
The film, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and scripted by Mark Boal, takes care not to channel its account of the Algiers Motel killings through any one perspective. As the city that Detroit is named for transforms into a war zone of rioters, cops, and the National Guard over the course of five days in 1967, the film darts from character to character, circling ever closer to the event at its core.
It pays a visit to the home of Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a young man with old eyes who is fatefully called in to his nighttime gig as a security guard at a store near the Algiers Motel. It sidles up to the patrol car of Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), a DPD officer of self-assured monstrousness who’s shown shooting a man (Tyler James Williams) for stealing groceries. It slips backstage at the Fox Theatre, where singer Larry (Algee Smith) and manager Fred (Jacob Latimore) learn that their vocal group, the Dramatics, is about to be denied its chance onstage because of turmoil on the street outside. It pauses poolside at the Algiers, where two white women who’ve come to Detroit from Ohio, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), are partying and pondering what to do now that their money has run out.
As its ensemble converges at the Algiers, some taking shelter for the night and others already staying there, a prank with a starter pistol draws police attention when tensions are already extremely high. And it’s then that time slows into a stomach-churning sequence in which everyone in the motel’s back annex gets lined up against a wall by Krauss and his colleagues (Jack Reynor among them), who demand information about and evidence of a sniper weapon that doesn’t exist.
It becomes a nightmarish feedback loop in which the cops, unwilling to lose face by backing down and admitting they made a mistake, incite panic from the black men and white women who can’t give them what they want. And that panic just enrages them more, feeding their feelings of authority and contempt, leading them to escalate. Their victims get threatened, beaten, harassed, and shot, the camera lingering on teary faces, eyes rolling in trapped terror, and lips whispering prayers. It’s an encounter that unfolds like something out of a horror movie or the grimmest kind of thriller.
The sequence is the focus of the film, the reason Detroit exists. But in terms of its aims to elucidate and create conversation, it’s not nearly as effective as the way the film ends.
After the killings, and after the infuriating and expected trial, in which detectives idly try to pin a murder on the innocent Dismukes and a judge throws out confessions of guilt, Detroit catches onto one of its characters and follows him, narrowing in on him for its quiet, devastating coda. It’s Larry, who wants so badly to be famous before the night at the Algiers that he sings to the emptied-out Fox Theatre just to have the time onstage, fame seeming so close he can almost grasp it.
After the incident, he can’t bring himself to chase the same dream, not when the sight of a white record executive at the studio scalds him inside. We see him spot a white woman dancing in the audience of a Dramatics concert after he’s left the band, a glance that speaks volumes when he has to walk away.
Larry just can’t go back to seeing the world the way he used to after the truths that were laid out for him that night at the Algiers — he no longer feels safe, nor is he willing to participate in a society that might buy his records but would dehumanize him and paint him as a criminal in order to excuse his murder.
Larry isn’t the main character in Detroit, because Detroit takes pains not to have one, but the film is at its best when it crystallizes around him in its final chapter, no longer standing back at a remove but becoming personal, grounding its perspective in the singular point of view of a man who makes it through the horrors of the Algiers Motel alive, but not unscathed. Detroit may effectively showcase an appalling spectacle of violence, but its real power is in its closing sequences, in which it portrays racial trauma in a far more intimate fashion. It’s a film that dramatizes the horrifying way three people died from systemic abuse, but it’s most eloquent in showing what it means to live with it.
The journalistic approach that Bigelow and Boal adopt for most of Detroit is, like the spliced-in clips of real footage from the time, a way of emphasizing that their movie was respectfully researched, that it’s a vehicle for truth and authenticity (or as much as it’s possible — a title card at the end acknowledges that some gaps were filled in with fictionalized material). But it’s deceptive, too, that approach, creating a clinical sense of distance before plunging us into that brutal central stretch in the hotel hallway.
Bigelow made her name with brawny, virtuosic genre fare like 1991’s Point Break and 1995’s Strange Days before transitioning, in her collaborations with Boal, into what’s now a trio of films that have married those big-screen thrills to more serious subject matter. But what worked brilliantly in The Hurt Locker — the movie that won Bigelow an Oscar in 2009 with its explorations of the addictive nature of the adrenaline-addled highs of combat — is a lot less comfortable in Detroit.
Detroit is just as dexterously made, but it brandishes its sense of thematic heft and its sense of craft in a much more discomfiting way. The Algiers sequence, in particular, has a claustrophobic intensity that’s as off-putting as it is effective, because the last thing a dramatization of real racialized violence like this seems like it should be is exciting.
Detroit is a film that offers up its violence for practical and prestige purposes, aiming to create a scripted work that will break through where photos and reportage and video have not. In an interview with Variety, Bigelow said that she decided to make the movie after a grand jury ruled not to prosecute Darren Wilson in November 2014 for shooting Michael Brown. Brown’s death and the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, and many others are the obvious, continuing present-day context for the historical events Detroit depicts, but they’re also looming reminders that Bigelow and Boal hardly had to go back 50 years to find a significant incident of police brutality against black victims.
On July 28, after President Trump gave a speech in which he joked to an audience of law enforcement officials about roughing up suspects, Detroit producer Megan Ellison tweeted a video of his words intercut with footage from the film, inviting him to see it, and noting, “It’s time to change the conversation.”
Trump seems about as likely to sit down and learn something from Detroit as he is to abruptly realize that steaks are and have always been better medium-rare — but such is the curious combination of conviction and cynicism that Detroit represents. It tells a story Bigelow felt so strongly about that, as she explained to the New York Times, its importance outweighed the criticism she’d get as a white filmmaker for presuming to tell it.
But that importance rests on the assumption — and maybe it’s an accurate one — that a glossy, deftly composed narrative feature from the director of Zero Dark Thirty can do what the live-streamed death of Philando Castile could not, and reach crowds who previously insisted that, actually, all lives matter. It rests on the assumption that an episode from the past has impact the present does not.
Art can and does change the way people see the world. But the combination of tastefulness and relentlessness with which Detroit approaches its subject matter is careful and dutiful and rarely resonant, despite Boyega’s heartbreakingly world-weary gravity, despite Anthony Mackie’s exhausted anger as a just-returned Vietnam vet being treated like an enemy combatant in his own country, despite Poulter’s chilling smirk, and despite the terrifying visuals of tanks rolling down a city street.
The film opens with a prologue that sets the scene for the 1967 Detroit rebellion not in details about the city but in far more sweeping ones, providing a condensed explanation of the Great Migration, white flight, and redlining that speaks to who the film’s intended audience is and what they’re expected to know or not know. It’s the kind of wide angle from which individuals blend into crowds, or into fodder for a tragedy. Detroit‘s most returned-to image is people who’ve been made, at gunpoint, to turn their faces to the wall, but it’s never more moving than when it allows one of them, at the end, to turn his face up to the light.
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