Unfortunately, it has not been long enough to distance America from the depicted in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. There’s Motown music in the background and the cars look old, but otherwise, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single moment of the movie that doesn’t crackle with contemporary relevance. Bigelow’s direction is as frenetic as it has ever been, one-upping the verisimilitude she showed in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. This has become a popular stylistic choice for hard-hitting stories that straddle the line between drama and thriller, from United 93 to Children Of Men.
Bigelow’s latest film falls into this sub-genre, technically, though I’m not sure either “drama” or “thriller” is the best descriptor. Detroit is a horror movie, tense and relentless and deeply upsetting.
Detroit has been released almost exactly 50 years to the day after the events it depicts, a case of police brutality amidst the Detroit riots of 1967. The riots killed 43 people and resulted in over 7,000 arrests. Detroit hones in on a few of those deaths in particular, as several black men and two white teenagers are hold hostage by the police and the National Guard in a motel frequented mainly by African-Americans. It’s a particularly egregious example of Civil Rights-era racial injustice; the events depicted are unique and extreme. If they weren’t, we probably wouldn’t even know about them. Many horrors along these lines have gone unpunished and unrecorded throughout American history.
We hear more about them lately, not because it happens more often, but because now people have the tools to share their stories with a wider audience. You probably know at least a half-dozen victims of police violence by name. If you weren’t already familiar with what went down in the Algiers Motel on July 25, 1967, here are a few more names to add to that list.Detroit focuses primarily on two characters — Larry (Algee Smith), a rising star in the Motown group The Dramatics, and Dismukes (John Boyega), a security officer who attempts to deescalate conflicts between black citizens and white law enforcement. Both are real people. The film’s third lead character is Krauss (Will Poulter), a Detroit PD officer, fictionalized for legal reasons. (Even fifty years after the fact, it’s dicey to pin a white cop with any wrongdoing against black men.)
The centerpiece of the film is an extended sequence set inside the Algiers Motel, where the police are hunting a sniper. A small amount of detective work suggests that there is no sniper — there’s no gun, and none of the suspects are violent — but there’s already one black body on the scene. The police figure they can scare some kind of confession of wrongdoing out of these suspects. After all, it’s a group of young black men in Detroit… how could they not be criminals? The police know it won’t take much wrongdoing on the suspects’ parts to justify the killing they’ve done.
Amongst the group held hostage by the police is Larry, who seems destined for a major singing career, and Greene, an honorably discharged Vietnam veteran. As far as we know, they couldn’t be more innocent, but they’re black and they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and the riots have spun Detroit into a near-apocalyptic frenzy. To their credit, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal don’t make these nice, upstanding guys the sole tragic figures of the movie. What happens to these people is deeply wrong, whether they’re criminals or not. They pose no threat to the police officer. They don’t deserve to be executed based on a bad cop’s judgment call. Two white teenagers are also amongst those brutalized — Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). They’re also real people. The cops decide that if these girls are “shameless” enough to hang out in a black motel, they must be shameless enough to be prostitutes. These girls suffer their own indignities at the hands of the police — they’re women, and cops can get away with it. What happens to Julie and Karen isn’t more or less horrifying than what happens to the black men in this story — Bigelow’s film is even-handed in saying that this abuse of power is sickening, no matter who the victims are or what they’ve done.
Bigelow is no stranger to controversy, thanks to Zero Dark Thirty, for which she was criticized for not coming down harder on torture tactics. Detroit is the antidote to that particular gripe — the movie is entirely about an inhumane abuse of power. Detroit is still susceptible to criticism as a primarily black story told by primarily white filmmakers. But being white also gives Bigelow and Boal free reign to depict the white cops as heinous racist cowards. In the hands of a black filmmaker, this very same film might be criticized for not being fair to the white characters. For dehumanizing them. For not bothering to show their point of view. In the hands of a black male filmmaker, some audiences might get queasy about the way white women are abused with same unflinching gaze as the black men.
Ultimately, there’s no filmmaker on Earth who can authentically tell every side of a story, but it’s hard to imagine a film with more raw empathy for its black and female characters than Detroit. To work as well as it does, Detroit‘s cops need to be as slimy as they are. I’m glad Boal and Bigelow had the guts to go as far as they do, with so little mercy for the men who were clearly in the wrong that night. The cops aren’t mustache-twirling villains, but they are despicable people committing unspeakable acts for no good reason. Detroit is crystal clear on a few facts: these cops are wrong, the justice system is flawed, and people who didn’t need to die have been murdered in cold blood. It’s a statement that needs to be made, and not just by black filmmakers. Crucially, the white girls aren’t the audience’s “way in” to the story, as white people are in a lot of stories about black people. (See The Help or The Blind Side as recent examples.) Bigelow’s camera captures the humanity of each victim, depicting the pain and horror of what they experience in a way that transcends race and gender identities. She comes as close as a filmmaker can to putting us in these people’s skin.
That’s an effective tool in a horror movie, but in this particular context, it’s a bombshell. Detroit makes us feel the hopelessness and anxiety of being caught in this dehumanizing predicament — not just vulnerable at the hands of a few wicked cops, but vulnerable to an entire system of oppression. In horror movies, the “final girl” often gets away in the end, and in many of them, there’s a sense that her troubles aren’t over. (Occasionally, the killer even pops up for one final scare before a smash cut to black.) In Detroit, it’s painfully obvious that our “final men” are never truly safe from this movie’s villain — never have been, never will be. As long as the system continues to work the way it does, with so little consequence for wrongdoing, the horrors of Detroit could happen again at any moment. Intellectually, this is an idea we’re used to — from Ava DuVernay’s The 13th, from the awareness raised by Black Lives Matter, from the news — but in Detroit, we truly feel it in our bones.
Earlier this year, Jordan Peele’s horror-comedy Get Out made a killing, both figuratively and literally, and managed to be adored by critics and audiences alike. Get Out is savvy entertainment, allowing us to laugh (and scream) at difficult, divisive topics we usually just get angry about. Like Get Out, Detroit equates being black in America with the dread and anxiety experienced by protagonists in a horror movie… to much different effect, of course. There’s nothing wrong with laughing at the very real racial issues Get Out depicts, but the film’s inconclusive, upbeat ending also lets us off the hook. Detroit leaves us hanging on it.
Not every moment of Detroit is handled with as much finesse as its nerve-wracking centerpiece. The third act is shaggy and a bit too traditional in dealing with the aftermath. A handful of powerful moments are dragged down as Bigelow and Boal try to barrel through too much plot too fast. (The third act deserves to be its own movie, but here, should have been condensed to match the tone of earlier sections.)
Detroit has also been called out as exploitative… and is it? Sure. It uses exploitation to its best possible effect. Bigelow doesn’t shy away from violence. Punches sound like they’re hitting our own skulls. There’s a lot of blood, though unlike your typical torture porn gore fest, it’s never “cool” or “fun.” In ways, this is a deeply unpleasant filmgoing experience. Not everybody wants to know what it’s like to be a victim of the majority — particularly those in the majority. But it’s important to know. Bigelow’s film gets about as close as a piece of entertainment can get to experiencing this injustice firsthand — knowing you’ve done nothing to deserve this, there’s nothing you can do to escape, there’s a very real possibility that you could be killed and that it probably won’t even be tried as murder if it happens.
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street was misunderstood by some as an endorsement of the greedy excess it depicted. Zero Dark Thirty got flack for allegedly implying that torture was an effective tactic in finding Osama bin Laden. Anyone who thinks Detroit is an endorsement of excessive force is a nutcase, but some may think the film goes too easy on its villains. That’s the point.
How can we expect Bigelow’s film to punish these men, if we won’t even punish them ourselves? As long as real police officers get away with murder, these stories should not be cathartic. They should barely be palatable, and that’s what this is. If you leave Detroit feeling angry, exploited, punished, or abused… good. You should. It’s about time that everyone felt that way, if only for a couple hours in the comfort and safety of a movie theater.Many harrowing historical dramas depict unimaginable atrocities happening to decent people. In contrast to Amistad or 12 Years A Slave, Detroit can’t be considered through the luxury of hindsight. A decade or two ago, white filmgoers might have emerged from the theaters with a sigh of relief, exclaiming, “Thank God that’s over with!” Unfortunately, we’ve seen too many headlines and videos that say otherwise. The fact that this film resonates with so much power is a testament to the activists who have made “Black Lives Matter” a part of our modern lexicon, who made sure that deaths of black men and women at the hands of the police do not go unnoticed… even if they do often go unpunished.
At a time when Christopher Nolan’s solid Dunkirk is getting rave reviews as a tense, experiential masterpiece, Detroit does the same thing, but with more urgency. For all its masterful filmmaking, Dunkirk feels like a very old story. Detroit takes place less than 30 years later, in 1967, but it feels like it’s happening now. Because it is happening now. It’s like watching Schindler’s List while the Holocaust is still happening. This is the war we’re still fighting.
Boal and Bigelow do end the film on a grace note, allowing one character a small beacon of hope. It’s not a happy ending, but it shows that life goes on, even for victims of brutal crimes — or those lucky enough to walk away from them, anyway. Several men in Detroit are robbed of their lives — not just those who died, but also those who survived. Larry ends the film damaged, but not broken. He carves out a niche where he can feel safe in this world, doing all he feels like he can do — hoping and praying that he doesn’t again find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, opposite the wrong cop.