With Kathryn Bigelow's latest film, DETROIT, opening wide recently, I am revisiting this project that I sadly left unfinished several years earlier. This installment is the first wholly original entry since I restarted the project.
The Film: Detroit
The Year: 2017
The Plot: Beginning with the raid that ignited the Detroit riots of 1967 and rapidly giving us a look at life in the city at that time, the film quickly narrows its focus to a fateful raid on the Algiers Motel that saw several black men and two white women held, mostly, by three members of the Detroit Police Department and psychologically tortured for hours while the riots continue to unfold outside.
The Issues: The Defacto Segregation of Northern American Cities- Although DETROIT has been dinged by several publications for not properly grounding the riots in the historical events that preceded it, the movie presents viewers with a brief animated sequence that summarizes black Americans’ movement North away from Jim Crow and a legacy of racism and towards what they expected to be a better life and more job opportunities only to find their dreams buffeted by institutional racism, informal segregation, and “white flight.”
Integration vs. Erasure vs. Segregation- Historically, integration is the ideal for American citizens. Immigrants come into the U.S. bringing their culture and customs with them. They marry their neighbors, coworkers, fellow churchgoers, and so one and those customs mix and mingle with others enriching the country’s identity. However, the dark side of integration is two-fold. One, it sometimes just does not plain happen (see above) or two, what should be integration becomes erasure and/or subjugation. Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a nearby security guard who rushes to the Algiers to help represents this. For one, he is either forced or feels compelled to go along with the violence and mindgames enacted on the largely black “suspects” at the motel. For another, he is easily dismissed and ignored the rare moments he does try to stop or temper the cops actions. Finally, he still ends up charged along the trio of bad cops despite, at least in the world of the film, never laying a hand on anyone and leaving the scene long before the night ended.
The Relationship Between the Police and the Populations They Are Meant to Protect and Serve- Obviously the harrowing 40 minute segment in the Algiers that makes up the bulk of the second act is the biggest “dose” of this topic. However, the film is dotted with instances and examples from the animated sequence to the opening raid through the early attempts to curtail the riots through the trial of the three officers and one security guard accused of perpetrating crimes against the people staying in the Algiers’ annex.
The Legacy of White America’s Fear of Black Men’s Virility- Again, during the 40 minute sequence, the two of the three white DPD officers seem utterly fixated on the idea of the two young white women present having sex with the black men, revolted by it and yet unable to stop bringing it up.
The Failures of the System/The Bystander Effect Writ Large- Another criticism of DETROIT has been that the film seems to default to the “a few bad apples” perspective on what happened at the motel but I would personally differ. Throughout, the film shows a multitude of time when any number of checks on the three officers’ “power”—and the ringleader’s in particular—could have been employed to either avoid the Algiers’ torture entirely or stop it in its tracks. First, we have the Internal Affairs officer who literally tells Officer Krause (Will Poulter) he intends to recommend murder charges against the young officer for shooting a looter in the back before immediately telling Krause to get back out on the street and do his job. Then it is both the State Police, the National Guard, and Dismukes who refuse to stop the trio of officers lead by Krause and, eventually, abandon the scene to avoid trouble rather than stand up to the DPD despite the Staties and National Guardsmen far outnumbering the trio.
Then there is a trial in which a jury of white Detroit residents refuse to hold the police responsible for their abuses.
Finally, there is the officer that “saves” Larry Reed (Algee Smith)—the last person to escape the Algiers alive—who several have pointed to as a Mr. Rogers style “hero.” However, until he sees Reed’s wounds this unnamed Officer has already drawn his gun and is threatening to shoot Reed for nothing more than violating curfew. He has enough humanity not to shoot a badly beaten man but a darker alley, a faster runner? It seems clear the officer would have shot Reed dead under those circumstances.
The Ways In Which Trauma Can Continue to Hurt You Long After the Event Ends- Larry Reed is a gifted singer on the cusp of a Motown contract who can no longer make music that white people will listen to after the Algiers, nearly ends up homeless and starving, and only survives by reconnecting with his faith and becoming a choir director is a predominantly black inner city church.
The Past Echoes in the Present- Although never specifically connected to the present, it is clear that many of the institutional and societal issues that made Algiers possible make police shooting possible today as well. It seems unlikely to impossible that these similarities did not occur to Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal, and the other cast and crew.
The Opinion: DETROIT has come in for a fair amount of criticism since its release—as well as, admittedly, several reviewers who found it powerful. While I disagree with some of the dings (see the segregation and systemic failure above) I have to say that the most prominent criticism—DETROIT is a brutal film—is accurate. I’m not sure I agree that it is a problem. Certainly it was very hard to take but I don’t think Bigelow did that by an accident. She wants it to be difficult, uncomfortable, stomach churning. She wants you in that front hallway.
I do feel like she and Boal stumble in other areas as well. First, I just want to acknowledge that they are both white people making a feel about a largely black experience in a predominantly black city. I am not saying people cannot tell stories about individuals of other races, religions, ethnicities, and so on, but it should at least be acknowledged when the majority—in this case, race—makes a film about an experience that affected largely minority individuals.
For me, the film’s biggest issue is structural. It takes entirely too long for Bigelow to find her story. It begins as though it is going to be a story about Detroit in the 1967 riots, which fits the title as well. We float from individuals and events promising a sort of multiple storyline/lead film that acts as a survey of the time period. Then, about 35 or so minutes in we reach the Algiers and the film reveals itself to actually be about those characters and that incident not the larger state of affairs in Detroit in that moment. As a result, characters we “met” are never seen again after only questions have been raised about them but no answers provided and plotlines hinted at never take shape. Either choice—the survey film or the Algiers film—are fine choices and worthy of exploration in film but by deciding to do both, each suffers, the Detroit part in particular.
The film also goes incredibly slack when we reach the legal hearing third act. Perhaps it is just because of how intense our time in the Algiers is, but in any case the “drama” of the courtroom feels inert despite a skin-crawlingly amoral performance by John Krasinski as the police union lawyer assigned to represent the trio.
While many have praised the film’s brief epilogue that reveals Reed having found a place of safety and security in his church I found it entirely too pat. It felt as though the movie wanted to give us a happy ending, a balm for us as we leave the theatre, and Reed’s was the closest they could manage. As a believer (who hates that term) I do believe in the possibility of finding healing in faith but I think most, including Reed, would tell you that even that healing does not come easy. Yet the film presents it as “Reed deep sixes his career, Reed eats raw beans in his empty home where he no longer has heat or electricity, Reed begs for a job at the Church…EVERYTHING IS GREAT AGAIN!”
Bigelow, even stumbling, does powerful work with the material and I never feel like she is equivocating or trying to excuse the horrors of that night or the system that allowed it to happen. That said, I’m ready for her to be done with this documentary-esque/journalistic stage of her filmmaking career. I know she has other speeds and I’d love to see one of them again.
The Conclusion: A complicated and complex telling of a horrifying incident. The movie is incredibly intense and brutal at times, muddled and flaccid at others. It’s powerful filmmaking for be sure but I’m not sure if it hits as much as it misses.