Director Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film is wholly in line with her body of work, for good and ill. In her recent films, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow has crafted films as a kind of journalism, in which she graphically depicts the physical realities of American war, surveillance, torture, and now racist policing. Her commitment to journalistic objectivity—focusing on bringing the facts of American geopolitics into thudding, bracing life, and rubbing audiences’ noses in it—necessarily precludes much of a point of view.
This is a double-edged sword, in the sense that the facts of Detroit’s wretched event, based on the murder by police of three innocent African American teenagers in the Algiers Motel during the July 1967 uprising, are presented fully for the first time to a wide audience, yet the context of the civil disturbance and the history of racist policing in Detroit and around the country is entirely missing. Rather than serve as a catalyst for a sorely needed conversation about lethal, racist policing, her new work is content to portray a single episode of extreme police brutality with something like the atmosphere of a horror movie. A socially conscious film about racism could hardly avoid terror and violence, but it would feature those genre elements in the service of a larger goal of contextualizing, informing, and persuading. For Bigelow, terror and violence seem to be the whole point, and racism is something of an occasion for portraying brutality and violence.
The film follows several characters through the days of rebellion by African American residents of the Motor City who are fed up with police abuse, erupting after a police raid on an unlicensed club hosting African American veterans returning from Vietnam. In the early aftermath of this raid, patrolmen Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole) think nothing of using deadly force against a teenager stealing some groceries. We are also introduced to the stoic Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who works at a factory and as a private security guard, but the focus lands on Larry Reed (Algee Smith), the lead singer of Motown group the Dramatics, and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore). We follow Larry and Fred as they end up at the Algiers Motel looking for a good time.
Larry—young, good-looking, talented, and extremely confident—quickly befriends two white women, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), visiting from Ohio and partying at an annex of the Algiers. Julie and Karen bring Larry and Fred to their friend Carl’s (Jason Mitchell) room, where Larry is gleefully mocked for his artistic aspirations by the socially conscious Carl. Carl proceeds to demonstrate, in unnerving detail, the realities of being controlled and bossed around by white police on a daily basis, using his toy gun for dramatic effect. Carl’s toy gun looks and sounds real, however, and when he fires it at the National Guardsmen and police across the street, Krauss and Flynn come charging over. The rest of the film portrays their efforts to find out who the “sniper” is by any means necessary, and with no holds barred.
A huge chunk of Detroit consists of the unlucky African American teenagers in the motel, along with Julie and Karen, being shoved against a wall and ordered not to move. Over and over again, the murderous, racist cops Krauss and Flynn bellow orders at their victims, taking them to a separate room to interrogate them and then shove them hard into a wall. As in Zero Dark Thirty, where we were treated to excruciatingly long and detailed scenes of physical and psychological torture, the centerpiece of Detroit is this seemingly endless stretch of bodies being slammed into walls, rifle butts slammed into faces, victims sobbing helplessly, and executions. What was marketed as an important film about institutional racism in America ends up being as much of a snuff film as anything else.
Rather than focusing on the racial dynamics of Detroit that led to the 1967 uprising, using moments of violence, terror, and tension to accentuate the desperation on screen, the act of extended police terror at the Algiers Motel is the star of the movie. After watching Detroit, viewers don’t really understand the sociocultural dynamics that, then as now, boiled over in acts of terrorism by the state against American citizens.
Bigelow steadfastly re-creates the physical details of the events without context or authorial point of view, making the film seem at times like a tacit endorsement of the status quo. Given Bigelow’s filmmaking prowess and intelligence, this is done with far more skill and effectiveness than the jingoism of something like Act of Valor, yet the critical perspective in her recent spate of political-journalistic films is essentially nil here.
Though the performances are all top-notch, especially Poulter’s villainous Krauss, there is not enough exploration of who these people are to make Detroit much more than a sophisticated, technically proficient depiction of state violence, which revels in the cracking of skulls to such an extent that it is hard to tell if it is an act of critique or fetishism.