Detroit | Episode 67.5

Posted August 3, 2017

-review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

I find the recent films of Kathryn Bigelow equally difficult to criticize and to praise. Points of comparison are lacking because no one makes films the way The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and now Detroit are made. Looking back further, it’s tempting to say Bigelow once helmed very of-their-time action movies, Point Break and Blue Steel. But even those relationship-entangled crime movies are bookended by drifting bands of vampires and a two-and-a-half hour sci-fi saga where Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett use data discs to discover people’s hidden memories.

OK, so no one makes movies like Kathryn Bigelow. Hers are all uncommon combinations of sweeping and intimate. Though her films don’t come nearly often enough (that four-year, not two-year, clip is one of the worst anecdotal indictments of sexism in Hollywood), every time a new one arrives the feeling is, “Man, she got after it again.” You’d be hard-pressed to find another veteran director who doesn’t have a single phoned-in movie on her or his resumé.

Over the course of her career, what separated Bigelow from being, say, a much better Phillip Noyce, or John McTiernan with stranger tastes, is her partnership this decade with screenwriter Mark Boal. The former journalist has provided the first-hand, prestige stories upon which Bigelow brought her visual voracity out of Hollywood fantasy and into something like reportage. Their promise as a team is always information-meets-tension. Bigelow has made, and I’m not sure anyone has said this loudly enough, the two seminal American war films of the millennium. Whatever you think of their politics, their overall touch, and whether the killing of Osama Bin Laden should have been depicted in pitch dark for 30 minutes, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty present razor sharp worlds that are terrifying for their stakes and hazy in their ethics. Sounds like modern combat to me. 

It’s easy to recognize these artistic properties in Detroit, a dramatization of the 1967 murders at the Algiers Motel perpetrated by Detroit PD. The movie also hangs in the fog of “war” (more on that idea in a minute) and the broad circumstances of injustice that fed into and out of the fateful night at the Algiers. Its scope is shaped like an hourglass, or maybe a blood vessel that’s being pinched in its middle: whole buncha setting, flashpoint, long denouement. It’s an incredibly ambitious way to make a movie. There are also reasons why directors don’t do it.

Detroit opens with another incident, one that launched the initial five days of riots. A party of black Detroiters is interrupted by police action. The civilians don’t have a liquor license for their after-hours club, and the police are portrayed as mostly diplomatic in the way they shut it down. But the by-the-book approach is meaningless at this point. The westside neighborhood has been scorched by police brutality, and a paperwork problem can easily double as a backbreaking straw. Rocks turn into molotov cocktails from angry onlookers, and the Motor City turns into an explosion of itchy trigger fingers, looting, and residents frighteningly unable to go about their lives. The cityscape is reminiscent in many ways of Bigelow’s Baghdad from The Hurt Locker. And if you don’t register that, a city cop will tell you it reminds him of his recent tour in ‘Nam.

In the roving first 45 minutes of the film, we meet the characters who will funnel into the Algiers. There’s a cruiser of cops who will end up doing the terrorizing, and we see their leader (Will Poulter) shoot a man who was looting groceries in the back. We meet Motown hopeful Larry Reed (Algee Smith), lead singer of The Dramatics. After a showcase is cut short by the riots, he despondently heads down to the motel with a friend, and they socialize with two white women. And then there’s the man who seems destined to be caught in the middle of it all — security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). He’s been commissioned to guard a grocery store during the looting, and he’s in the unique position of playing mediator between angry black teenagers and white cops who perceive an enemy in every black person they lay eyes on.

These are the characters who will spend the second act of Detroit in a house of horror. And that’s not be said lightly. It’s sickening to feel the psychological resonances of a Saw film in a retelling of a real-life event. Detroit PD, the National Guard, and Dismukes descend on the hotel after a guest fires a starter's pistol at the guardsmen for a laugh.

With the guests lined up against the motel wall, being beaten by gun butts and violated by gun barrels, Detroit trades its Hurt Locker resonances for those of Zero Dark Thirty. To find out who fired on them, the cops institute a particular brand of torture: the Death Game, in which they pretend to execute the young motel guests until someone admits to being “the sniper” they believe to be in the motel. The tactics are practiced, intentional, and they carry a disgusting flag of homeland defense. However they extract this information, it’s crucial to the security of this city, they argue. The result of the evening will be a massacre not dissimilar from a war crime. Three black men are killed, and nine others (including the two women) are beaten.

There’s no one in the game who can make you feel the intensity and sensory exhaustion of that house like Bigelow. Over and over, her camera pans across the line of prisoners and then finds itself just under and behind the jawbone of a character. This is Bigelow’s favorite perspective. It’s close, obviously. It’s more physical than shooting someone’s eyes. You can see precisely how an actor is holding tension in his face and body. And it’s also slightly behind the characters, a vantage point from which the camera can be diligent in it observation of the torture.

Of course, even though it may remind the viewer of a war, this isn’t a war. It’s Americans with power killing and traumatizing Americans with none. Taking it in, it’s fair to wonder if the film is running too high on energy and too low on empathy. Bigelow and Boal would probably argue, no, they empathize with what these people when through, and they understand it through the portrayal of PTSD (one of their favorite filmic topics). They’re right of course, but isn’t the more interesting symptom of trauma more than a tremor?

The filmmaking is intuitive, but the structure of the screenplay is where Detroit has outthought itself. As always, Boal’s script feels studiously researched but not content to let characters just unfold and develop naturally. The story seems determined to be taken as pure nonfiction (even though it is not), and it won’t give over to the POV of a key character. In fact, it won’t even pick that character. It’s baffling that Dismukes does not become the centerpiece of this movie; he has feet in two worlds and it feels like his soul should be at stake. Instead, he gets alienated both from the Algiers event and from the film as it goes on. Is that more real than making him our window into the story? Probably. But movies don’t impact you because they feel like a set of facts. There’s a reason epics often hinge on one hero. No, Detroit is trying to do Crash without the narrative device, and it's trying to do semi-fiction like it’s God and Edward R. Murrow’s own truth. This event was a mountain of racial politics, centuries of history, and first-hand details that can never be corroborrated. That’s a combination that set O.J. Made In America soaring across 10 hours, and it clearly had a human focal point. Detroit is trying to do that in 2:30 while never picking one.

As a white person tapping away about a movie made by white people about black people — and which has spurred discussions about the efficacy of white artists rendering black pain — it feels right to acknowledge my biases and what I’ve heard from black critics about how Detroit landed with them. On their podcast Still Processing, Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris noted the movie has rendered the cops as the most interesting characters in this story. In his review, K. Austin Collins cites Boal’s script in particular as failing to consider that the black residents of Detroit have their own political imagination. I’d agree heartily with both points. And while I’m not sure where I fall on white people making art about black people as a rule — umm, if you feel like you have to do it, do it really well and really thoughtfully? — these criticisms also relate clearly to Detroit’s existence as a movie, not just a political act.

It lacks and strays from and confuses a story that seems like it should be about a few black Americans and their experience. Boyega is phenomenally measured in his characters conflict, but it’s endlessly frustrating not to see him get to run with the part. Meanwhile, while Poulter’s performance is pathologically villainous, the script gives him ample room to speak in the many different manipulative voices of someone playing both public servant and abuser. That imbalance is either clumsy or troubling given the story Boal and Bigelow have elected to tell.  

So Detroit has bitten off more than it can chew, but it also doesn’t want to chew the material for fear it wouldn’t maintain its documentary-style approach. It’s like Bigelow and Boal don’t want to be too earnest about retelling this story, too radical, too anti-Blue. And yet they’ve chosen to recount a specific historical flashpoint about police brutality and the systems that let it happen, so why not live up to the commitment you’ve already made? After all, the tagline for the film is “It’s Time We Knew.” That's a crusader's credo for a movie that doesn't have to be Fruitvale Station to be successful. Just make space for actual, felt humanity between the handheld cam and the typewriter. 

* * *

[Editor’s note: For those of you scoring at home, Detroit ultimately gets a “good-bad” from Chance. He would listen to an argument for bad-bad, but it’s hard to slam the technical prowess after you’ve witnessed the directing and acting for two-and-a-half hours. Yeah … good-bad.]


All The Movies We've Reviewed

101 Dalmatians
10 Cloverfield Lane
10 Things I Hate About You
127 Hours
22 Jump Street
47 Meters Down
Across The Universe
A Dangerous Method
A Few Good Men
Air Force One
A League of Their Own
Alien 3
Alien: Covenant
Alien: Resurrection
American Animals
American Hustle
American Made
American Psycho
American Splendor
A Simple Plan
A Single Man
A Star Is Born
Atomic Blonde
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
AVP: Alien Vs. Predator
Baby Driver
Baby Mama
Bad Company
Bad Lieutenant
Bad Moms
Bad Santa
Basic Instinct
Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Beasts of No Nation
Beauty And The Beast
Before Sunrise
Behind Enemy Lines
Black Hawk Down
Black Mass
Black Panther
Blade Runner 2049
Bleed For This
Body Heat
Boogie Nights
Bridge of Spies
Bull Durham
Call Me By Your Name
Captain Fantastic
Catch Me If You Can
Chariots Of Fire
Chasing Amy
Child's Play
Christmas Vacation
Cinderella Man
Con Air
Cool Runnings
Crazy Rich Asians
Crimson Tide
Danny Collins
Dante's Peak
Dead Poets Society
Deep Blue Sea
Deep Impact
Deja Vu
Demolition Man
Dirty Dancing
Donnie Brasco
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot
Dude, Where's My Car?
Easy A
Eddie The Eagle
Ed Wood
Employee of the Month
Erin Brockovich
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Event Horizon
Everybody Wants Some!!
Executive Decision
Ex Machina
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them
Fatal Attraction
Field Of Dreams
Finding Forrester
For Love Of The Game
Friday Night Lights
Game Night
Gangs of New York
Garden State
Gone Girl
Gone In Sixty Seconds
Grosse Pointe Blank
Hail, Caesar!
Half Baked
Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Head of State
He Got Game
Hocus Pocus
Hollywood Ending
Hot Tub Time Machine
How High
Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Ingrid Goes West
Inherent Vice
Inside Man
Inside Out
In The Land Of Women
In The Line of Fire
Into The Wild
I, Tonya
Jaws: The Revenge
John Wick
Jurassic Park III
Jurassic World
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Kill Bill, Vol. 1
King Cobra
Kingdom Of Heaven
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Lady Bird
La La Land
Leave No Trace
Less Than Zero
Lethal Weapon
Little Miss Sunshine
Love & Mercy
Love, Simon
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mamma Mia
Matchstick Men
Midnight Special
Million Dollar Arm
Mission: Impossible
Mission: Impossible - Fallout
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Mission: Impossible II
Mission: Impossible III
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Mississippi Grind
Mo' Better Blues
Mom and Dad
Money For Nothing
Moonrise Kingdom
Mr. Mom
Murder at 1600
My Cousin Vinny
National Lampoon's Vacation
Never Say Never
Ocean's Twelve
Old School
One Hour Photo
Open Water
Orange County
Out of Africa
Part of Me
Peter's Friends
Phantom Thread
Picture Perfect
Practical Magic
Public Enemies
Purple Rain
Raising Arizona
Red Dragon
Red Eye
Red Sparrow
Remember The Titans
Reversal Of Fortune
Rock Of Ages
Run All Night
Save The Last Dance
School Ties
Scream 2
Simply Complicated
Sleepaway Camp
Small Soldiers
Snakes On A Plane
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Southside With You
Space Jam
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
State and Main
Step Up
Steve Jobs
Sweet Home Alabama
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Addams Family
The Big Chill
The Big Sick
The Bling Ring
The Brady Bunch Movie
The Campaign
The Cell
The Cloverfield Paradox
The Color of Money
The Disaster Artist
The End of the Tour
The Family Man
The Fast and The Furious
The Fighter
The Flintstones
The Fly
The Fog
The Fugitive
The Fundamentals of Caring
The Hateful Eight
The Hate U Give
The Holiday
The Hours
The Hunt For Red October
The Illusionist
The Indian In The Cupboard
The Insider
The Judge
The Jungle Book
The Last of the Mohicans
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
The Martian
The Matrix
The Matrix Reloaded
The Matrix Revolutions
The Meg
The Mexican
The Mighty Ducks
The Mission
The Mosquito Coast
The Muppet Christmas Carol
The Natural
The Negotiator
The Nice Guys
The Night Before
The Pagemaster
The Perfect Storm
The Poseidon Adventure
The Prestige
The Queen
The Recruit
The Revenant
The River Wild
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Rules of Attraction
The Shadow
The Shallows
The Sixth Sense
The Social Network
The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three
The Thing
The Truman Show
The Watch
The Witches of Eastwick
This Is Where I Leave You
¬°Three Amigos!
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
To All The Boys I've Loved Before
Tropic Thunder
Van Wilder
Varsity Blues
V For Vendetta
Welcome To Me
While You Were Sleeping
White House Down
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Wild Things
Wild Wild West
Win It All
Without A Paddle
Wyatt Earp
Young Adult
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