Following The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal return for their third collaboration in a decade with Detroit, a tense and visceral film centered on the 12th Street Riot of 1967 that saw the titular city brought to its knees.
After an inexplicably unfitting opening sequence that establishes the background of the black community in Detroit through the animation of art by Jacob Lawrence, the atmosphere of the film begins to boil. These American streets feel just as tense as the war zones Bigelow masterfully captured in her last two films, and the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality inspires the same kind of uncertainty and fear as we watch the incident that sparked the riots unfold. As police herd the patrons of an unlicensed bar into a van, an angry member of the curious crowd throws a bottle. Then another. As the police retreat, a rock shatters a store window. And so it begins.
This tension does not cease for most of Detroit‘s 143 minutes. At any time, it feels like something could explode, especially with the likes of Will Poulter’s police officer Krauss on patrol. Quick to fire his weapon into the back of a fleeing looter to demonstrate his power and authority, Krauss represents the systematic brutality of the predominantly white police force, but is more than just a caricature. In a memorable scene in which an investigator asks him to explain his actions, Krauss reveals his desire to restore peace on the streets. The investigator suggests Krauss will be charged with murder, but when his partners enquire about the meeting, Krauss tells them “he’s just doing his job, same as us”. He’s not overtly racist in comparison to many of his peers, and that is what makes him so important. The acts he commits are no more justifiable because of this, but it serves as a reminder that systemic hate isn’t always black and white.
Like its predecessors, Detroit shifts between the broad and the specific to address its themes. After shots from a starter pistol are mistaken for sniper fire, Detroit police officers including Krauss, along with members of the State Police and National Guard converge on the annex of the Algiers Motel, from where they suspect the gunfire emanated. In what would become an iconic example of police brutality and the complete disregard for civil rights, the Algiers Motel incident would end with three young black men dead.
How that came to be remains inconclusive, but Bigelow and Boal choose to fill in the gaps by depicting the police torturing hotel guests in search of the shooter. At times, the brutality threatens to sink into sensationalism, and while it never quite gets that far, the social and political commentary starts to lose its impact around this point.
Also at the motel is Dismukes (played by Star Wars’ John Boyega), a black security guard who followed the police to the scene. Dismukes watches events unfold passively, torn between his identity and his uniform. He’s almost too passive; often seen standing unnoticed in the background, his presence is underutilised amidst the chaos. This may be a result of the fact that the real Dismukes was charged with assaulting some of the hotel guests himself, a fact Bigelow and Boal ignore.
Instead, they choose to have Dismukes charged with the three murders. This reveal – seen in the trailer – provides the best scene of the film. Boyega is astounding as confusion and terror take hold. It’s the only moment of real substance for his character, and seems designed as a simple excuse for why Dismukes would be on trail as he was in reality.
Unfortunately, simple is the description for the closing act of the film, which wraps up with a rudimentary court case that ends the only way it can in such a film. It’s a perfect opportunity to leave the audience with the sense of outrage that’s warranted, but where Bigelow and Boal decided to dramatise the events within the motel, they don’t follow suit with what came after. It’s a shame; some of the choices they made during the incident would force Dismukes, Krauss, and his two partners to provide some outrageous explanations to assert their innocence, but we don’t get them.
Detroit comes to an end with a pre-credits slideshow revealing what happened to some of the people following the trial. It’s become traditional in such films, as if the archive photos provide some proof of their authenticity, but it’s a shame. The themes of the film, the examples of racism and abuse of power are as prevalent today as they were 50 years ago, and yet this sequence offers a sense of finality that simply isn’t suitable.
In the last couple of years, several notable projects have delved into these same issues, such as I Am Not Your Negro and American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson. For all its complex characterisation, the raw and gripping cinematography of Barry Ackroyd, and Bigelow’s deft directing, Detroit never manages to reach those same levels. The film recognises the issues its confronting, but by depicting them as it does, it’s unlikely to reveal anything new to its audience.