This is a difficult film to dismiss as a lumbering beast, uneven and fractured, or to praise as powerful and a fine work of art.
Detroit runs for over one hundred and fifty minutes – it feels much longer if you actually watch it! – and is screaming out to be either an epic at three hours, or an incisive drama at ninety minutes. Add another three quarters of an hour for those boring commercials, trailers, and a that crass billion ball bearings advert tearing sound into your eardrums, and you might need to take a camp bed with you to the cinema and some earplugs.
It arrives courtesy of the politically motivated director Kathryn Bigelow working with screenwriter Mark Boal, the journalist who also wrote the director’s previous two films, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker. It’s riveting and its a clunky mess. It won’t surprise me if there was battles in the editing room between studio and Bigelow.
This double decker bus of a movie has Bigelow crafting a portrait of the 1967 Detroit uprising that is highly controversial in the way it depicts the detail of historical events and gives us a history lesson. But just as you get engrossed in its racism and violence perpetrated by paid officials it splutters to a halt before it cranks up again to full speed.
Bigelow begins the film with an odd startling tableau, paintings by Jacob Lawrence, momentarily animated, depicting the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South during the period before World War I. Some describe the opening as crude. To my mind it had me confused into thinking the film was about to take a children’s book approach to key tragic events.
In reality this migration had an opposite effect. The “white flight” – American’s fear of black men – left many cities, including Detroit, in disarray, fomenting racial disparity between largely black urban neighborhoods and the white police forces patrolling them.
The riots in Detroit were front page news in the US and the UK during the time. That overload of information and facts weighs down Bigelow’s film with a duty it never quite manages to fulfil. I can see why she tackled detail. The events in Detroit are largely forgotten by the United States of Amnesia. Nevertheless, I can’t see any other way of giving us a critical insight into the despair that fed the chaos of 1967. Once the wide view has run its length the film’s field of vision narrows acutely.
The fury that unleashed the riots was sparked by police overreaction and brutality in an attempt to shut down an unlicensed drinking establishment. “Arrests for a private gathering? That’s police overreach!” one man helpfully yells in an early dramatization of that episode, as Detroit jumps through the historical timeline, with little attempt at characterization or plot.
We get a scene of local politician John Conyers, (Laz Alonso) exhorting a crowd to remain peaceful. “I need you to not mess up your own neighborhoods!” he yells. “This is your home!” The crowd’s response is angry and righteous: “Burn it down!“
We get a lot of dramatised moments, National Guardsmen shooting up at people in windows, interwoven with archival news footage, and the then governor of Michigan state George Romney addressing the press.
The story gathers focus when it alights upon the now infamous ‘Algiers Hotel’ incident. The hotel is the stage over which main characters in the drama pass back and forth.
Young white cop Philip Krauss, (Will Poulter) rides in a patrol car and laments the fact the police have “failed” the black community. He sounds our man, compassionate, but not long after uttering the platitude Krauss proceeds to blast a large hole in the back of a looter with a shotgun. The dying victim’s spilled bag of potato chips provides a suitable symbol between the surreal moment and the consequence.
The officer is later reprimanded by a senior detective and told that murder charges will be brought against him – right before he’s sent back out into the streets with a casual “Kid, calm down out there.” A curfew is imposed on the city with every copy ready to blast the skull of anybody still not at home.
Meanwhile, African-American security guard Melvin Dismukes, (John Boyega) is called in to protect a grocery store and finds himself compelled not just to keep watch over the establishment but also to protect black kids on the streets from the unhinged cops harassing them. Gradually the action around the hotel moves inside.
We first see the complex as aspiring R&B singer Larry Cleveland, (Algee Smith) and his young friend Fred Simple, (Jacob Latimore) duck inside to get away from the violence in the streets. At this point events take a tragic turn, both in the drama and in the real life event. Any sense of safety for Cleveland and Simple is short-lived once police and Guard respond to what they think are gunshots fired at them from the hotel. They blast their way in looking for the culprits. To this day no one is certain if shots were fired from the hotel or not. Misinterpretation is a calamitous thing in the heat of the moment.
What ensues is closer to a relentless, extended torture sequence, as the officers, led by the manic Krauss, force the men and women inside the hotel against a wall and take turns playing a “death game”. This is classic Bigelow territory – torture by ‘our’ guys, the good guys who are supposed to be better than the bad guys. Bigelow allows the sequence to go on and on and on, for what seems an eternity of raw, gut-punching tension.
As we watch these horrified men and women vilified, ridiculed, beaten and degraded, and two instances murdered in cold blood, their police killers never charged, Detroit veers into exploitation. I found it hard to watch.
What point is Bigelow making? We know intellectually torture is vile and brutal, why extend the scenes? When you show a row of black women facing a phalange of riot police have one of them state her case not stay stoically silent. The National Guard was given the nod of approval by Obama, a constitutional lawyer. How did he manage to justify that? Perhaps Bigelow is conveying riots don’t come with tidy three-act structures or middle-class sentimentality. They are an endless nightmare. I wish I knew precisely what she is saying. Not knowing makes the film all the more unsatisfying.
The switch to the Algiers Hotel completely disrupts the pace and balance of the plotting yet it’s the core of the movie, and Barry Ackroyd’s hand-held shaky camera work makes the torture scenes feel all the more realistic.
Detroit’s later sections involve the mourning afterward and the court cases that followed, shown mostly in brief subjective glimpses to have a real impact. We are left not quite knowing what moral lesson we are being taught, but above all, what Bigelow feels about the behaviour of rioters, looters, police and National Guard. Surely she can’t be saying and nothing more that all police forces harbour a few bad apples?
I had the same disquiet watching Bigelow’s depiction of the Bin Laden assassination. The USA violated the territory of another nation. Had that happened in reverse all hell would be let loose. Few raised their hands in horror. Bin Laden was the big bad bogeyman and it was right and just to hunt him down wherever he hid. That was how the western press presented officially sanctioned assassination to us. Kill the opposing side’s general and the war will be won – a ludicrous naivety.
Performances are all-round excellent as you’d expect them to be for such a violent tract. The stand-out performance comes from twenty-four year old English actor Will Poulter was last seen in The Revenant getting down and dirty, freezing cold and soaking wet. I noticed him some years back in an awful UK children’s comedy series. He had an odd face that stood out from the crowd, and a way of throwing himself into whatever was asked of him to do. In the intervening years both his face and acting technique have matured considerably.
“My internal monologue at that time was quite difficult to wrestle with,” said Poulter, interviewed about his sadist role in Detroit. “There was “no sense of enjoyment or relish in playing a role like this because he (Krauss) is so offensive and heinous.” Poulter said he was forced to “embrace ignorance” in order to play the racist officer. “You are having to convince yourself that just because some of us are a different ethnic group, (black people are) a threat to you, or they are immediately a criminal. You’re having to accept ignorance as the thing that informs all of your behaviours, a frightening place to be.”
Detroit is a film in which we witness real events not meted out by super-heroes. Bigelow forces us to confront the violence the state can use against its own people. And yet because of the imbalance in the film’s structure it all starts to look and sound like a sophisticated television documentary on a very big budget.
This annoyingly unreconciled screenplay does terrify and unsettle us enough to make us think being black and living in the newest democracy in the west is no cake walk. It’s a warped state of mind.
Star rating: Three stars
Cast: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith,
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd
Composer: James Newton Howard
Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes