Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith
Typically by the time I sit down to write about I film, I've sorted out how I feel about it. As first steps go, it's a pretty important one and ultimately a pretty basic one: did I like it or not, did I think it was good or not. After thinking about it for a couple of days, I'm still on the fence about Detroit, a film in which I found much to admire, but which I also found wanting in certain respects and which left me feeling, at certain points, kind of annoyed. A lot has been written about Detroit in terms of what the film includes, what it omits, and whose story the murders at the Algiers Motel is to tell in the first place. Those are all topics worth discussing, and I believe that Detroit is a film worth engaging and discussing in that critical way (I say this because there seems to be a tendency these days for a work to be labeled "problematic" in some way or another and for the internet hivemind to decide that it should just be avoided altogether), but I'm not sure that it's totally successful as a film.
Set during the 1967 riots, Detroit's focus is largely on what's known as the "Algiers Motel incident" in which three black men were murdered and several more, along with two white women, tortured by Detroit police officers. The officers are Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O'Toole), and Demens (Jack Reynor). The victims are Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a singer in the Motown group The Dramatics, Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.), Michael Clark (Malcolm David Kelley), Greene (Anthony Mackie), Lee (Peyton Alex Smith), Julie (Hannah Murray), and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). Standing somewhere in between is Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard who is drawn towards the goings on at the Algiers and decides to stay in an ill-fated effort to de-escalate things and ensure that everyone gets out alive. Dismukes' strategy when it comes to white people in positions of authority can perhaps best be described as "killing them with kindness," going out of his way to be friendly and helpful, biting his tongue rather than challenging them as they invent scenarios on the spot to justify the violence they've inflicted. The tragedy of Dismukes is that this will get him nowhere. He doesn't get everyone out of the Algiers alive. He's the first person to be arrested for what happened at the motel. He's acquitted of the charges against him, but he's persona non grata and forced to move after receiving death threats. He thinks he can fight racism by making racists see the humanity of those being being subjected to racism and learns too late that by making them see him, he's only convincing them that he's "one of the good ones," the exception that proves the rule that will allow them to carry on as hatefully as ever.
Dismukes, the police officers, National Guardsmen, and state police end up at the Algiers - not to the motel itself, but to an annex behind the motel - after hearing a gunshot and believing that it may be a sniper firing at police. In actuality it was merely a starter pistol fired inside the Algiers in jest, though in the film's depiction the starter pistol is fired more than once and, after that first shot, several times out the window with the direct intention of making the police think they're being shot at. The film ends with a disclaimer that events have been dramatized and certain facts are still in dispute and, in light of that, I'm left feeling particularly uneasy about how the film chooses to portray the catalyst for what happens. My knowledge of the Algiers Motel incident is admittedly limited, but while every secondary source I've read since seeing the movie has mentioned the one shot fired as part of a prank, the film itself is the only thing that I've encountered that suggests multiple shots fired with the intention of getting the police's attention. The way it plays out here, with Carl Cooper gleefully shooting in the direction of the police hoping to scare them and see them run for their lives for a change, makes it look like a deliberate provocation, like Cooper is inviting the tragedy that will befall him and everyone else in the annex.
But if that choice troubled me, one which annoyed me was the film's decision to shoehorn examples of "good white people" into a narrative that is built on the physical and psychological violence of white supremacy. There are two moments that I'm specifically referring to, both of them occurring late in the film: one is when a white National Guard officer sneaks into a room in the house and tells Lee, who all the other victims believe has been killed as part of a "death game," to run. This character isn't seen again afterward, he's just someone who basically swoops in, releases Lee, and then disappears. The other scene occurs after a physically battered and psychologically broken Larry is set free and runs from the motel only to fall at the feet of other police officers, one of whom exclaims at the sight of him and wonders aloud what happened to Larry and how anyone could do such a thing to another person. Maybe that actually did happen in real life, I don't know, but the moment is so tonally out of line with everything else in the film, in addition to being objectively unnecessary to the narrative, that it feels like the cinematic equivalent of the kind of tone-deaf, politically empty sentiment that leads people to declare that "all lives matter," because just as all lives do, of course, matter but all lives aren't the ones in question, not all police officers are abusive, but the abusive ones are the ones we need to talk about. Pointing out that there are good ones, too, isn't particularly helpful, one might argue that it's actually a distraction from the issue at hand, and the decision of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal to engage in the kind of pandering that prizes the fragile feelings of the privileged over the reality experienced by those without privilege is disappointing.
Yet, at the same time, Detroit also does a lot of things right and which go a long way towards making it a thoughtful and powerful piece of work. For example, I think the film does an excellent job at demonstrating how something like racism can become institutionalized, depicting it not just as an active thing driven by hate, but as a passive thing driven by the disinterest of people who know better but aren't willing to say or do anything about it. Early in the film Krauss shoots and kills a man who he believes is a looter and who is running from a grocery store. When called in to explain what happened, Krauss does a lot of verbal tap dancing about how brutality towards black people is a favor that the police are doing for them to teach them how to live "properly," and is promptly informed that murder charges are going to be recommended against him. He's then sent back out on duty with the suggestion that he try to stay out of trouble. Later, a state police officer who has seen what's going on in the Algiers (there are a lot of men in uniform who pass in and out of the house during the course of the long night, usually taking a sideways look at what's going on and deciding they want no part of it) and tells his superior, who decides that rather than trying to stop it they'll just leave so as to avoid being drawn into a "Civil Rights mix up." They recognize it as wrong, but just don't want to get involved, failing to recognize that their silence is a form of complicity.
I also think that Detroit displays many of Bigelow's strengths as a visual storyteller. There are a lot of great individual shots in the film, credit for which obviously has to be shared with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, but the feel of it is also the result of Bigelow's ability to stage scenes so that all the air is sucked out of them, giving them a claustrophobic, inescapable feeling. What happens to the people in the Algiers is sickening, but Bigelow isn't exploitative in how she deals with it; she isn't trying to shock for the simple sake of shocking and eliciting a quick emotional response, but to make the horror plain and undeniable. When it's at its best, Detroit is a very effective film. Taken as a whole, however, it is a flawed piece of work. It should be seen rather than dismissed out of hand, but it isn't quite the film it could have been.