Detroit (2017)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

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Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is a scattered period piece ostensibly about the 1967 Detroit riot but which centers around an incident at the Algiers Motel that left three black teenagers dead and more heavily beaten.

So much of the movie is limited to the long night at the motel that should just be the entire movie.  As it is, for whatever reason, we get an extended prologue introducing the characters and then an extended epilogue tying up loose ends.  These set ups and payoffs often feel way too neat and riddled with cliches and character set dressing.  In the process they become less human, just archetypes and role fillers, each scene working to establish one key take away for the audience so that the tension will rise tenfold at the Algiers Motel.

The motel incident is pretty brutal.  It’s a horror movie, with the villain played by a particularly racist white cop, Krauss (Will Poulter).  He’s so extreme, so over the top, and the incident is so isolated that the the whole thing feels very theatrical and problematic.  As a viewer your takeaway here is that he himself is a singular problem, and should he be removed then the problem is gone.

But that’s of course not the lesson to be learned.

I have an idea of what brought rise to the Detroit riot, but these ideas have more to do with my general understanding of racism, the 60s and the working class problems Detroit has historically had.  They have nothing to do with what I learned from this movie.

A brief text-laden animation tries to tell us what factors led to the riots, but once the movie begins we’re not given a clear reasoning as to what those factors were.  We’re just told that things were tense, and suddenly it broke out into violence.

The inciting incident for the Algiers Motel story involves one man wanting to taunt the cops by shooting a starter pistol out the window.  This leads to a small army of officers showing up shouting that there is a sniper in one of the motel rooms.  From there, of course, things only get worse.

What’s strange about all this is that it suggests some culpability on the part of the black teenagers who would soon be brutalized and murdered by the cops.  It offers an explanation for what would follow.  It seems that we’re supposed to think that while the police response is horrific and absurd, their reasoning for showing up in the first place is based on some degree of evidence.

When you read that there is no agreement on what actually begat the altercation, well then this story point feels widely unnecessary and inappropriate.

Then the cops show up, and they’re led by Krauss.  He’s a cop who earlier in the movie shoots an unarmed black man in the back as he’s running away.  This is done, I suppose, just to establish that Krauss is a wildcard and should not be trusted, ever.

Krauss is then the character with the most agency through the rest of the movie, and he acts with an obscene recklessness that stems from some combination of racism, fear and self-righteousness.  He is the de facto leader of two other cops who are made to seem little more than stupid.  They are bigots, to be sure, but more than that they are the unthinking muscle to Krauss’ psychopathic mind games.

That horror movie section of the overall film is viscerally effective.  It’s really hard to stomach, it’s deeply upsetting, and it accomplishes everything Bigelow wants to accomplish.  The whole movie within the movie is meant to rouse anger, and it does.

In that attempt there is very little nuance, and the movie then feels like a gross over-simplification of a much deeper issue.  It’s not that there are a few people like Krauss out there that cause these problems.  Instead the factors leading to all this violence are more systematic, but Detroit doesn’t seem interested in this.

Taking a step back, the movie would have you believe this is a story about the riots as a whole.  Just look at the title and where we begin.  We see shots of tanks rolling into town, we see the first minutes of the riots developing, and we’re often shown newsreel footage of the riots themselves.

It starts with such a wide shot but then narrows into this hyper-focused story and disregards anything outside the motel as little more than tone-setting.  That means that we get a shot in which a tank shoots out an apartment window behind which, peeking through the blinds, is a young child and we never know what happens next.  The movie seems to kill a child and just forget about it.  Its’ grotesque and feels as murky as that moment in Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992) in which a woman loses her unborn baby in a car accident, and it’s just used as a plot point in the will they/won’t they storyline between her and a man.

When the movie ends there is onscreen text letting us know that much of this was made up, simply because the truth wasn’t known.  When you do a little reading and realize just how much was made up, as well as how different certain characters were portrayed in the movie (like John Boyega’s security officer), it starts to feel like a problem.  Detroit doesn’t lean into the mystery the way some other movies do, purposefully letting us know that much of this is subjective and that, inherently, memory is subjective.  Instead it presents this telling of events as factual, and by making Krauss the clear source of evil, it—

Look, I’m not the right person to talk about this.  All I know is that it feels simplistic, reductive, and while as a piece of filmmaking it is at times incredibly effective, that feels moot when it borrows from real people, real history and real pain.

Up Next: Cold War (2018), Smashed (2012), Fyre (2019)

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