The latest film from Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, the woman responsible for modern masterpieces The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, has me stumped. I’ve sat on this review for a while now, and I still struggle now to form the words to critique it. It’s not that the film is complicated or confusing. It’s merely the fact a story of such incredible importance to the black community has been crafted exclusively by white people. And something about that feels incredibly off.
That’s not to suggest white people have no place making films regarding issues that affect the African-American community or any other minority community. They can and should bring these stories to light. They have in the past to great success. But films of this nature made by white filmmakers have generally included some involvement from one or multiple representatives from the black community. But not with Detroit. The director is white. The screenwriter is white. The producers. The cinematographer. The editor. The composer. The production designer. It’s a white-wash of a production, and in the era of Black Lives Matter and #OscarsSoWhite, this baffles me considerably.
Now I know many will suggest that at least a film like this is being made at all, no matter who is delivering it to us. And I see that point. The story of the 1967 Detroit riots and the horrific events at the Algiers Motel demand to be told on-screen, particularly in this current climate. But there’s a real sense of authenticity lost when a story of this magnitude is being told by people who, try as they may, will never understand the importance and weight of responsibility it brings. As a gay man, I felt this exact frustration when Roland Emmerich, director of Independence Day and Godzilla, tried to tackle a significant moment in the history of gay rights, with the god-awful and horrible misguided Stonewall. I suspect many in the black community will feel the same with Detroit.
But I’m a film critic. And I have a film to review. The notion of who is delivering a piece of cinema should never really come into play when analysing a film. The creative filmmaking team should play no part in your reaction to what they have crafted. But in the case of Detroit, it may explain one of the film’s major problems – its screenplay.
Shot in faux-documentary style, Detroit begins with a seemingly routine police raid and shut down of an unlicensed bar on 12th Street. The patrons inside are black men and women, merely having a drink and playing some pool. The police treat them with contempt, herding them onto the street and into awaiting patrol wagons with brute force. It’s not long before an infuriated crowd begins to gather to witness the unjust and unnecessary brutality.
Their rage grows and grows until they finally snap and violence ensues. Windows are smashed. Businesses are looted. A petrol station erupts in flames, after a Molotov cocktail is thrown through its doors. Fires break out all over town. The city is under siege, and three days of rioting is about the commence. But that’s not the crux of the plot here. It’s merely the backdrop for how these riots will affect the lives of those desperately trying to keep out of it.
Far removed from the chaos outside on the streets, a soul music concert is in full swing at a downtown theatre. While Martha and the Vandellas perform their huge hit “Nowhere to Run,” the Dramatics and their lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith, in a star-making turn) are anxiously waiting in the wings for their time in the spotlight. The talented boys are unsigned, and this is their moment at last. But it’s not to be. Just as they’re about to take the stage, the burgeoning riots force the immediate cancellation of the show. As the audience is evacuated, Larry watches his big chance walk right out with them.
Attempting to take Larry’s mind off the crushing disappointment of his failed performance, the band’s manager and friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) convinces Larry to join him for a night at the Algiers Motel, a rundown den of inequity filled with plenty of booze, drugs, and women. It’s here they meet two teenage white girls, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), who are visiting from out-of-town, and looking for a good time.
That good time appears to present itself in the form of Carl (Jason Mitchell), a wild and rambunctious guest, holed up in a room on the top floor with a bunch of his friends. When Larry, Fred, Julie and Karen join the party, things quickly get out of hand. Carl, failing to realise the seriousness of the situation on the streets outside the motel, foolishly fires off a starting pistol out the window at a group of National Guard troopers keeping watch across the street.
Believing a sniper to be inside the Motel, the local lawmen once again show their penchant for overreaction. A group of white junior police officers, led by hot-headed and trigger-happy racist Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), take it upon themselves to raid the hotel and flush out the gunman, by any means necessary.
Also caught up in the drama is a well-intentioned black security guard, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who’s joined the chaos to help calm the tense situation, but soon finds himself powerless to stop the maniacal lawman’s twisted games. Krauss’ sadistic and psychotic nature is on full display, as he torments and abuses those inside the Motel, in his pathetic mission to locate an enemy who does not exist. What follows is a night of pure hell and unimaginable torture for the unfortunate guests of the Algiers Motel, and not all of them will make it out alive.
Detroit is by no means an easy film to watch. Nor is it meant to be. It’s an unflinching portrayal of a shameful event in modern US history, made even more shameful by the film’s devastating epilogue which reveals the fate of all involved. You can probably guess how the US justice system treats Krauss and his fellow perpetrators. Bigelow never shies away from showing the true brutality of this crime, and it’s uncomfortable viewing, particularly knowing it’s based on fact. This happened. And it’s still happening now.
That’s the film’s enduring power – its relevance and timeliness. We’d like to think this is a painful reminder of the racism of the past, but it ultimately displays scenarios and moments far too familiar in 21st century America. This kind of systemic racism and police brutality still permeates across the US, and a film like Detroit highlights how little has changed and why that’s a shameful realisation.
Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd capture the moments with documentary-like voyeurism, giving both large-scale distance shots when outdoors and tight close-ups when the action moves inside. Those interior moments are filmed with a frenetic and claustrophobic style which causes the tension to rise even higher for the audience. Bigelow puts us right in the thick of the events, and it makes the film that much more uncomfortable to behold. She’s always been a director determined to unnerve her audience, but she takes that to a new level here.
For all her talents, Bigelow is let down by screenwriter Mark Boal’s script. The dialogue is fine, and the structure of events is well conceived. However, Boal fails to give his characters considerable development or any depth into their motivations or psychologies. Perhaps he was too focused on respectfully creating the right cohesive narrative for these historical events that he couldn’t properly craft fully formed characters.
We’ve seen Boal gift us with extraordinary characters in the past, namely his Oscar-winning work in The Hurt Locker, so it’s a true disappointment to see such shallow characters here. Boal’s screenplay also fails to properly examine the true cause and history of the riots or the background of any of the film’s characters, especially Krauss. Yes, he’s a racist, but where does this come from? Without any true motivations, the policeman becomes a one-dimensional caricature who’s ultimately only evil for evil’s sake.
Despite the screenplay’s issues, the ensemble cast more than make up for it, with stellar performances throughout. Even without the writing behind him, Poulter delivers a startling and terrifying performance as the twisted Krauss. He gives it everything he’s got, and owns the uncomfortable aspects of this production. Anthony Mackie shines as a recently returned Vietnam vet, caught up in the terror at the motel. Mackie is stoic and strong, and will capture the audience’s sympathy. Boyega is wonderful, and really becomes the personification of how we feel – watching the events unfold, desperately wanting to stop them, but knowing we cannot.
But the real stand-out is Smith, whose transformation and character arc is the most deeply affecting of the film. To see the change in Larry as he morphs from bright and hopeful superstar to damaged and broken victim is powerful viewing. The exuberance for life he once had slowly begins to fade, and it’s devastating cinema. The system and “the man” really do shatter Larry, and you have to wonder how many people this has really happened to, and still happens to.
While it may not delve too deeply into the how and why of these incidents, Detroit will still affect you deeply, and shake you awake to how little has progressed for racial issues in America. The notion of should this film have been made by a bunch of white people is for others to debate. While it may lack the authenticity a “black voice” could have given this piece of cinema, it still hits hard and will stay with you long after the credits fade.