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.