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Detroit

You guys, it’s seeming more and more like Kathryn Bigelow, Academy Award winning director of THE HURT LOCKER, has permanently replaced Kathryn Bigelow, awesome director of POINT BREAK and BLUE STEEL. That’s okay, they’re both very good at what they do. DETROIT follows ZERO DARK THIRTY as another heavily researched, based-on-actual-events issue movie with writer Mark Boal (IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH). This time they step away from the “War on Terror” to look at an even more intractable American quagmire: the war that members of law enforcement have on African American citizens, and the way the system harbors maniacs and racists who abuse their power.

The subject is the Algiers Motel Incident, a particularly gruesome chapter of the 1967 Detroit riots when police officers and National Guardsmen detained a group of young, mostly African American people, beat and tormented them, (SPOILERS if you don’t know about the true story) murdered three of them and were not punished for it.

I didn’t know anything about the events or the structure of the movie going in – not even that the singing group The Dramatics were main characters – so I was surprised to find that this is Bigelow’s most intense movie yet. I remember how upsetting a particular long interrogation scene in her last one was, how a guy actually got up and ran out during that scene when I saw it. This is a movie where that scene stretches across most of the movie. These innocent young people stand with their hands against the wall as they’re threatened and degraded and taken away one by one to be mock-executed, for-real-beaten, even sexually humiliated.

It’s a good cast, though many characters only have a few scenes to establish what they’re normally like – we mostly see them in the process of trying to survive this. Algee Smith played Ralph Tresvant in THE NEW EDITION STORY, and as former Dramatic Larry Reed he gets to do some more singing as well as shoulder the job of depicting the permanent emotional damage of a trauma like this – a thematic connection to THE HURT LOCKER. I didn’t recognize Jason Mitchell, who looked much bigger than when he played Eazy E in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON. Anthony Mackie (Tupac in NOTORIOUS) makes a strong impression as stoic Vietnam vet Greene – he projects such obvious integrity that it’s infuriating to see these cops really believing they have his number when they accuse him of being a pimp.

If there’s a standout performance like Jeremy Renner in HURT LOCKER or Jessica Chastain in ZDT it is Will Poulter (SON OF RAMBOW) as the psychotic and racist cop ringleader Krauss. With his convincingly hateful performance and eminently punchable face I’m kind of glad for his sake that this movie is doing poorly, because otherwise the this-guy-is-a-racist vibe would probly follow the poor kid around for the rest of his career, like how I can’t look at Dylan Baker without thinking of him as a pedophile because of HAPPINESS. But when we first see Krauss riding through a riot-damaged neighborhood, talking about “we’ve failed these people,” it’s clear that he thinks he’s a good person, that he’s not a racist, that he’s just a guy doing his job. Even though he’s a guy who carries around multiple switchblades to drop next to any innocent black man he happens to kill.

Even more chilling than his motel rampage is an earlier incident where he shoots a man in the back for looting two bags of groceries, then just leaves after the guy runs off. When confronted about the man’s eventual death, Krauss pulls an incredulous “What? I didn’t know I did anything wrong!” defense, admitting “I might’ve clipped him” – and it works! He gets off without much more than an angry finger pointed in his face and a “Why, I oughta!” snarl from the chief.

Bigelow shows how things can build, how some petty bullshit can snowball into a catastrophe. The story begins with a party for two black soldiers back from Vietnam. Since it happens after hours at a private business without a liquor license they’re technically breaking the law. If this was a legitimate charge, you’d think they’d get a citation and a fine, right? Or, if the cops weren’t pricks, a friendly warning. Instead the door is kicked down, they get raided, threatened, insulted, paraded out and arrested en masse, an intentional provocation. (I was weirdly reminded of the police raid on the rehab center in CLEOPATRA JONES.)

There never should’ve been a problem with this party, they never should’ve raided it, never should’ve arrested anybody, never should’ve manhandled them. So there never should’ve been riots, never should’ve been an opportunity to treat looting as a capital crime, or for a battalion of cops to be posted outside the motel, where they could misunderstand a situation and overreact and then go way out of line and murder a bunch of innocent people in the stubborn, stupid pursuit of their mistaken idea of what justice is. They had to be assholes about this one stupid thing – about not wanting some black people to listen to music and have a few drinks – and then they escalate and escalate and escalate and escalate.

To add insult to injury, we see a commercial play on a TV with some white dude enjoying a drink. Hey everybody, have a drink, it’s fun!

(Except you boys. Have you been drinking? Hands on the wall!)

We see much of this through the perspective of Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega, ATTACK THE BLOCK), a security guard protecting a nearby store in case there are looters. He recognizes the potential for trouble being a black man posted near all these white cops, so he goes over and introduces himself. When the shit goes down he goes to investigate and sees a dead body. Though overly trusting of the police version of events, he’s cognizant enough to stick around and try to be a calming presence. (I was surprised to read that the real Dismukes has previously been portrayed as a villain in all this – one survivor accused him of taking part in the beating. Dismukes was interviewed for the movie and claims it is “99.5% accurate.”)

While Boyega is now best known for playing a lovable dork in THE FORCE AWAKENS, here he has the presence of a great leading man, making us root for him even when he’s being a little dumb. There’s a moment when everything seems lost but we know we haven’t quite reached the climax. We look at handsome Boyega and his calm demeanor and… could it be? Does he have some way to pull a happy ending out of his ass? In a fictional movie he would have a eureka moment and the music would build and he would create a miracle. He would figure out that last thing to do to save the day, to obtain justice.

But this is a true story where there was nothing he could do. So he walks out of the courthouse and he pukes.

This new respectable Kathryn Bigelow gets attacked from both the right and the left. Some of the right didn’t like her questioning the war and some of the left thought she was glorifying it. The attacks on her work tend to push my buttons because I feel like some people are demanding she make worse art in order to unambiguously line up with their politics. I respect the many people here who strongly disagree with me on this, but I still think any asshole who walks out of ZERO DARK THIRTY feeling amped up instead of sickened and troubled is not going to be cured by a big “What’s happening here is wrong!” speech at the end. And I don’t want to live in a world where it’s considered irresponsible to aim a movie at intelligent people who can come to their own conclusions without having everything spelled out for them like a bunch of dummies.

This time Bigelow is in even dicier terrain, because there’s an understandable distrust about white directors telling black stories, and if they do tell them they have an extra responsibility to get them right. There are many writers arguing that she didn’t. For example, three history professors wrote a piece called “‘Detroit’ Is The Most Irresponsible and Dangerous Movie Of The Year.”

I’m not sure they’re really arguing for that most Huffpost of headlines, but I appreciate their examples of context left out of the movie. To my dumb white ass most of the examples seem more “that’s interesting” than “how dare they leave that out!”, but the best point is about the riot being a response to a long history of not licensing black businesses and then harassing them. I agree that it would be an improvement if that was made clear in the movie.

But I don’t agree that the film reduces the problem of police racism and brutality to “bad apples” and long ago history. I think the parts showing open racism that would be rare to see in the modern day (pre-Trump) are intentionally minimized in order to emphasize how applicable the story is to today. Same goes for the inclusion of police characters who wouldn’t feel comfortable in white sheets. Bigelow and Boal take pains to show that having non-racist or even anti-racist cops on the force can’t change the system, and that’s if they had the courage to try to. The state police, in a laughably on-the-nose piece of dialogue, acknowledge that the DPD are “going crazy in there” and violating civil rights – so they leave. A National Guardsman (Austin Hebert, JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK), who participates for a while but then seems horrified and helps get the white girls to safety, eventually says “This is police business” and leaves. (It was testified that he either said that or “This is bad business.”)

Two of the police confess, but the union lawyer (John Krasinski, 13 HOURS) gets it thrown out and then brutishly re-torments the victims on the witness stand. That is true of the real case and true of every fucking case today. They have everybody believing in a reality where otherwise innocent black men are constantly reaching for officers’ guns. It’s the damndest thing. Makes no logical sense but just keeps happening. “It’s a shame, so young,” Krauss says with faux-sympathy. I mean what choice did I have but to kill him and make up a story about it.

This might seem weird but there was a point where DETROIT started reminding me of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. One character has managed to last through these hours of depravity and gets to run away into the night, scraped up, smeared with sweat and tears and blood. In the end there are survivors, but there is not justice. In CHAIN SAW, Sally barely gets away, giggling psychotically, who knows how this will effect her mentally. “Who will survive, and what will be left of them?” But Leatherface is still back there waving his saw. Same thing here. Even if those cops had gone down, the circumstances that created them would not have.

This is a rough one. It makes ZERO DARK THIRTY seem tame by comparison. And once you get through it you’re left with the worst feeling of all: this is not a period piece. If it was a fictional story it could be remade in the present day, Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO style, with minimal changes. If this crime happened today, we could bet our life savings that the officers would get away with it just like they did here. Virtually nothing has changed except that these young people wear much cooler shirts than we do, and the officers now would most likely return to the force.

Whatever you think the movie’s flaws are, for white people to see it and walk out with that sick feeling in our guts as a reminder of this monster that we need to face – I don’t see how that can be a bad thing.


recommended further reading:

RogerEbert.com: Review by Angelica Jade Bastien

New York Times: “Racial Violence on the Screen” by Michael Eric Dyson

The Daily Beast: “When White Directors Tell Black Stories” by Touré

Slate: “What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in DETROIT” by Aisha Harris

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017 at 11:59 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

14 Responses to “Detroit”

  1. Hearing that Will Poulter is so good at being bad in this movie makes me wonder what he would have brought to the table, if he had stayed to play Pennywise in IT.

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    Complete, unabashed non-sequitor but when you mentioned Dylan Baker, this is the first thing that came to mind. He’s done a lot of interesting bit-part work (and was particularly good on one season of DAMAGES), but I was surprised to learn later on this was the same guy.

    (great comment story in the top comment by the actress playing his wife in this video btw)

  3. This was the most intense film I’d seen in cinemas since Bahubali 2, which is now on US netflix, recommended to all. Don’t want to oversell it but that’s the best non Fury Road action film of the decade, imo.

    But yeah I think Vern’s take on the politics of this film are about where I’m at with it. I think there is a tendency, online, to identify something problematic about a film and then to act like it has been solved somehow, and that there’s nothing more to it, or to say about it. That isn’t something I agree with, and it makes for bad analysis.

    You see a lot of this, and it doesn’t make much sense to me cos it isn’t exactly an approach you can apply uniformly, cos it depends to a large extent on the goodwill you approach something with. Everything is problematic, but I guess at

    I’m gonna see this one again, but I’d echo probably what everyone else here is gonna say that I’d love it if Bigelow wanted to make some genre pics again. I was struck by how dismissive she was of that sort of work recently, but I guess to her all that will speak to a particular time in her life. I do think it is great that she has built up her own style and cinematic language. Her and Boal are a great pairing, but I wonder if diminishing financial returns might prompt a re-think.

  4. I started a sentence mid-paragraph that I forgot to finish, apologies everyone. Good film though

  5. Well I’m sold! Naturally all my local theaters are dropping it after this week so I’ll have to wait for video since I won’t be able to make it out and see it tonight.

  6. Thanks for the great review. Watched “Detroit” last night, last of three movies. Amazing film making, and connects to today’s mess.

  7. Anjelica Jade Bastien’s review on Rogerebert.com is perplexing. Her essential issue seems to be that Bigelow and Boal are white tourists telling this horrific real-life tale, and fail to really capture and sell the broader ramifications of injustices like the ones depicted in “Detroit.” She also has some nitpicky problems about the cinematographer’s inability to properly represent the diverse palette of the black actors skin – really grudging, but ultimately positive review. Vern: does she have a point? Do you think Bigelow earned her stripes or did her movie come off as something that would be better suited to a Spike Lee or Steve McQueen or Ava DuVernay? I just finished re-watching “Glory” and I was left feeling that Edward Zwick, White though he is, did a phenomenal job of telling that story.

  8. My hope is to get some conversation going about the qualifiers for white people to tell stories about the black experience in film. Obviously the system needs to change so that more of these filmmaking opportunities can be available to what I’m positive are a huge number of untapped directors/writers of color, but when I think of Spike Lee being so pissed that “Ali” got to be directed by Michael Mann, and then rewatching it after all these years and realizing how deftly the black experience (as far as I, a white outsider, have been educated to understand it) was captured during the turbulent 60’s (not to mention the incredible boxing sequences, and my steadfast belief that Mann is the superior choice of directors when the priority is to train Will Smith and create the curriculum so that he convincingly fight like the most famous boxer of all time), I think exceptions can be made so that sometimes, a white artist like Bigelow, Zwick, or Mann, should get a pass to dive into these projects.

  9. Patrick – yeah I hate how Glory gets zero respect these days because it was directed by a white guy and a white guy gets first billing (though clearly does not have the most memorable role). It’s incredibly well-made and powerful and I think it was a really important story for all kids, even a kid like me (neither white nor black) to see at an early age. But now of course, it gets boiled down to “It’s a white director! It’s got a White Savior! Morgan Freeman is a Magical Negro!” and every other tiresome buzzword people love using to show how deep they are, man.

    I haven’t seen Detroit yet (and in fact skipped over the bulk of this review because of spoilers), but I do know one thing – a white director will never be able to make a movie about race again without a thousand thinkpieces pointing out how they didn’t get it and are using black pain for entertainment, etc… Hell, take the Bad Batch, a sc-fi movie made by an Iranian and not even about race, where a black character (who is portrayed with more sympathy than all the white characters) gets killed and then the entire conversation about that movie becomes “it’s racist! I’m boycotting!” and even led to conversations about how Iranians are actually technically white (huh?) Nevermind that if you think that moment was meant to be a “fuck yeah!” moment you’re crazy, but that’s besides the point. I guess all African American characters shall now be treated with kid gloves onscreen lest you want your film accused of “exploiting black pain for fun and profit”, but don’t treat them with too much reverence or you’ll get accused of making them the Magical Negro, etc….

    2 other thoughts – 1) If Bigelow just “stayed in her lane” and didn’t make an African-American-centric movie, how many outraged thinkpieces would there be pointing out “Kathryn Bigelow only tells stories for white people! Where’s the INTERSECTIONALITY!?! Hey did you notice there are no black characters with any AGENCY in Point Break??” the way people trendily jumped on Tim Burton or the Coen brothers (and will inevitably show up with the release of the next Wes Anderson or Martin Scorsese film). 2) Hey you know what movie last year was about “black pain” and was made by a black person and everyone said it was the greatest movie in decades and was THE frontrunner for the Oscar? Birth of a Nation. I literally don’t think I’ve ever seen more internet love and hype for a movie in my life (I feel everyone on the internet besides me had somehow already magically seen it at a festival and wouldn’t shut the fuck up about what an amazing movie it was), but when Nate Parker’s rape accusations “came out” (despite being on his wikipedia page for years!), suddenly all I heard was how the movie was never that great anyway and it was like a bad comic book and female characters had “NO AGENCY” and got “FRIDGED”, etc. etc…

    Sorry for the rant on the board for a movie I haven’t seen, but as I’m seeing more and more people online who are actually saying with a straight face “Joss Whedon cheated on his wife?? Looks like I won’t be seeing Justice League!”, I’m going to light a candle for film criticism of yore, as we welcome in this new version of criticism where we categorize, background check, and properly vet the artist first (we should ask the artist for his or her papers while we’re at it) and then maybe judge the art second if we feel like it.

  10. looks like neal2zod is first poster around here who is actually capable seeing wider picture than most users – too often everything is played on race card. But frankly, for us movie fans it shouldn’t matter if director is green or black and main actor is yellow or pinkish – if it’s great movie then it’s great!
    Movie about blacks can be boring as hell and it shouldn’t be a cardinal sin to say it out loud.

  11. Hey, a green director would totally matter, because it would be super awesome to have someone with that skin colour around!

  12. I found the movie often compelling, if a bit misshapen in structure. But man, I miss pre-docudrama, slick-as-hell ’80s and ’90s Kathryn Bigelow.

  13. ahv – “Movies about blacks”…movies involving characters of every stripe can be boring as hell, or they can be stunners. But you knew that, right?

    neal2zod – Many great points in your posting, thanks for writing that up. Superseding everything you just said, which I more or less agree with, is the reality that black people (and women, let’s not forget) don’t get the opportunities in the biz that they should, and for all we know the hypothetical version of “Detroit,” directed and written by black men or women, that would have been more unifying and crowd-pleasing and all-around better, was held back because of a studio system that still holds too many reservations about taking meetings with the “unknown quantity” of a person of color telling an important story about the black experience.

    But I think your points about how the art itself, warts and all, should be judged based on its cinematic value alone – what happens between the first frame and the last.

    Bringing up Whedon was wise in the context of this conversation…my sister is a producer, and has wanted/dreamed/tried to work for the guy for years because of the quality of his female characters and stories. She finds them entertaining and inspirational, and I always loved and encouraged her passion for those things.

    So when the AV Club publishes an article titled “Joss Whedon is Not a Feminist” this week, it felt like a punch in the nuts, and I’m hoping my sis doesn’t read it and feel crestfallen. We hate to hear about our heroes’ human flaws (and sometimes some pretty fucked up ones), but in the end I try to err on the side of letting the work speak for itself. I just heard that now Louis CK is facing some gross allegations of sexual misconduct, and like Chappelle brilliantly parsed through in his stand up about the Cosby scandal, and like I felt when Kanye West had his meltdown and meeting at Trump Tower right after I saw him in a brilliant LA concert, in the end we’re talking about cinematic values and experiences, not the complex personalities and factors that led to their making.

    Are we going to boycott Deadpool 2 because someone died in a motorcycle stunt? “Fuck that movie, they should have observed the proper safety guidelines, I’m sure there’s nothing in that movie that could be valuable.”

    Some of what I was reading in the sub-links Vern posted about “Detroit” seemed really unfair to me when considered in this light.

  14. I struggle when writing about movies like this, because I try to be honest about my problems with the way they have been attacked politically, but I also don’t want to be some whiner/weiner making a bigger deal out of the poor white directors not having total creative freedom than the entrenched white bias of the Hollywood system that caused this backlash in the first place. But in the specific case of Bigelow it sucks because finally a woman makes it to a certain level and she immediately gets torn down from a thousand directions. I think she can take it, but it still bothers me.

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