REVIEW: Detroit

5 08 2017

Don’t believe the marketing. “Detroit” is not a film about a series of riots that took place 50 years ago. Those events merely provide the background for a stripped down story in which the long-flaring tensions between the police force and the minority communities they patrol reach a boiling point.

Not unlike director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s last joint, “Zero Dark Thirty,” they begin with a brief prologue of historical context. Then, it was the audio of phone calls coming out of the World Trade Center over a black screen; here, crucial subtitles establish the interrelated forces of geographic mobility driving the Great Migration and the suburbanization of America. When blacks move into an area, whites move out – but maintain their control over those spaces through aggressive policing. Rather than cohabitation, the more powerful group opts for occupation by proxy.

This is important to understand in “Detroit,” which hones in on a single portion of the half-century-old historical event. Amidst the unrest, a black man fires shots from a prop toy gun out a window, sufficiently spooking the police and National Guard on patrol into storming the Algiers Motel. A harmless prank quickly brings out the most terroristic impulses from the boys in blue – and yes, they are boys. The young guns recall a description of the police in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: “in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club or a fist or a gun.”

From there, the film essentially functions like a hostage caper or a home invasion story. With her “Zero Dark Thirty” editor William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, Bigelow ratchets up the tension by the moment as the police use every trick in the book to strip away all humanity from their suspects (several black men and two women in their company) in order to identify the shooter. Will Poulter’s unrepentantly lawless Krauss leads the charge to insult, harass and pit these friends against each other; calling his crusade against the dignity of blacks vigilantism does not even begin to do his despicable behavior justice.

Will Poulter and Anthony Mackie in Detroit

There’s an important conversation to have about how to represent black pain on screen and who gets to represent it. That agony is on full display in the motel, although Bigelow presents it in a more immediate, visceral sense (in keeping with her muscular cinema) rather than tying that violence back to its roots in centuries of racism or extending it into the present-day cases of police brutality. I don’t want to suggest pushing macro-level discussions aside, because they are important. But for the sake of evaluating “Detroit” as one piece of work, Bigelow made the decision that was consistent with her overall aesthetic.

For her as a white filmmaker and Boal as a white screenwriter, their angle on “Detroit” is exposing the mechanisms of white supremacy. Krauss should not have been at the motel in the first place – he was under suspension for shooting a fleeing looter in the back. Yet this monstrous murderer still managed to slip past authorities and go out on patrol, coaxing his fellow officers to become complicit in his racist rampage. White supremacy is a system where Krauss and his fellow officers get the benefit of the doubt at every turn but the black men at the other end of their weapons get none. It functions in the Algiers Motel the same way it functions in the courtroom of the film’s third act where an imposing attorney wins the case by waging a campaign to discredit the victims.

Yet for all this talk of law enforcement as a representation for all of white America, there’s an interesting figure in “Detroit” who straddles both sides of the binary: John Boyega’s Dismukes. A security guard paid to protect a grocery store in the middle of the conflict, he’s called an Uncle Tom by members of his own race but never fully trusted by the white authorities. Dismukes finds himself drawn into the situation at the Algiers Motel, mostly as a fly on the wall. He’s a witness who seldom exercises his agency.

To be fair, Bigelow and Boal have a duty to portray events with a certain amount of fidelity to the historical record, and those details are hard to corroborate. Yet Dismukes’ role in “Detroit” is woefully underdeveloped, from his lack of abhorrence in the face of injustice bordering on aiding and abetting the interrogation to his strange status of being a prime suspect in the deaths that occurred. Whether that speaks to a lack of detail or a lack of curiosity is the film’s biggest lingering question. B+

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2 responses

9 08 2017
Sam Tarde

Such a good point about Boyega’s character. At the end, I was left wondering why he was even in the movie, because it seemed like without him, everything would have been the same!

14 08 2017
dbmoviesblog

I read some positive and not really that positive reviews, but I think your review is very fair. I am going to watch it because I watch everything by Bigelow, and although not at the centre per se, I think it was still kind of nice for someone to draw attention to the Detroit riots again. These events shouldn’t be forgotten.

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