Detroit dir. Kathryn Bigelow (2017)
I finally saw Detroit, the day of the Charlottesville Nazi march no less.
I have very mixed feelings on the movie and they’re only mixed because director Kathryn Bigelow is a really good filmmaker. People who were most wary of the film because it had a white writer were right to be so, because the script is absolutely the weakest link and writer Mark Boal, who also wrote the scripts for Bigelow’s films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, has penned a script that gets so much wrong, trampling all over moments of subtlety with clumsy dialogue and making minimal effort to deliver context.
The film has a very clear three-part structure: the first is dedicated to the overarching outrage and frustration that led to the 1967 riots, the second shows the murders of three black men by the police at the Algiers motel that took place mid-riots, and the third focuses on the lack of justice provided by a biased and ineffectual legal system. But at every turn the writing, and sometimes the direction, undercuts its own message. Aside from some completely lazy title text accompanied by some very ugly animation, the first section does an absolutely terrible job of showing why black people in Detroit started rioting and even mostly privileges the perspective of the police. The final section is so bad you have a character screaming out “the system is rigged” in a courtroom as if the movie doesn’t trust the audience to put the pieces together.
And that’s a real pity because these two weak sections bracket the strongest most effective part of the movie where Bigelow delves in to what exactly went down at the Algiers and where Boal for the most part (but unfortunately not completely) curbed his need of having characters broadcast the film’s intentions. This is the part of the movie that’s earned the most criticism for the amount of violence, but it’s a violence that feels earned in a way that the violence of the first section of the movie doesn’t. This is Bigelow at her masterful best, juggling a large ensemble of characters so that their actions and motivations are clear. Despite the chaotic nature of the action, which involves about a dozen characters running in and out of various rooms, the geography of the place is never in doubt so that audiences are able to fully focus on the horror of the actions. It is by no means a perfect piece of cinema but it’s by far the best part of a fractured film because it shows (without telling!) that there is absolutely no winning what the police call the “game”, where they use brutality to get their suspects to confess, or indeed any way of winning when it comes to black men dealing with the police at large. One of the gifts of the large ensemble is watching as all the black men take different approaches to trying to survive the night and the absolute desolation of watching as every single one loses. Even the ones who live come away completely destroyed by what they’ve seen and what they needed to do to survive.
Will Poulter, playing a racist cop, has been met with the most praise and though he’s very good among my favourites were John Boyega as a security guard who decides the best approach is to act deferential. It’s not a great role, again the writing lets him down, but he has such a commanding presence that he’s a pleasure to watch on screen. Algee Smith as an ambitious young singer and Jacob Latimore as his friend and roadie are also standouts. I’ve heard no one praise Anthony Mackie but he has one of the best moments in the film. Sitting in his room with two young white girls they hear the police invading the motel he starts coaching them on what to do and how to act and without further explanation you can tell from the exhaustion and fear in his voice that he’s been in this situation before. It’s a quiet well articulated moment of the kind the film could have used more of. Also to briefly bring up the two white girls who are also brutalized by the police: Hannah Murray has the biggest part between the two of them and she is unfortunately awful. I’m honestly so disappointed because though the role was small it covered a lot of complexities I’ve never seen depicted before on screen: the way white women use black men and black culture as a way of being transgressive, the way white women are used as an excuse for white men to lash out against black men, the way that even if they are privileged in some ways they can be victims of sexual harassment and abuse, and the way in which despite these things they can retreat back into the privilege of their whiteness. A lot of complexities going on that are ruined by Murray’s atrocious performance. I wish Bigelow had chosen someone else.
Some more scattered thoughts: I love it when directors reuse actors so I enjoyed seeing Anthony Mackie and also Jennifer Ehle, so great in Zero Dark Thirty, in a cameo! The production values on this were amazing and the costume design by Francine Jamison-Tanchuck, especially for the women, was gorgeous. I can never unthink of John Krasinski as Jim from The Office, and he was distracting as a smarmy police union lawyer. Samira Wiley also pops up for literally less than a minute, the role didn’t require her having a lot to do but it seems like such a crime to have her do the work of a glorified extra.
I wish I could recommend it because I am a huge fan of Bigelow but I just can’t. The riots deserved a better movie and I believed Bigelow could do better so I’m disappointed that the resulting film was so uneven. Even though the time never dragged for me this only ever felt like a very solid first draft with hints of how much better it could have been. I’m not surprised it’s flopping at the box office because a) it’s not very good and b) who exactly is the audience for this? White racists won’t touch a movie that address systematic racism by police and white people sympathetic to the film’s message will have a difficult time sitting through a two and half hour uneven film filled with gruelling violence. By the time I walked out of Detroit to check the news a woman was dead and many more injured after a Neo-Nazi plowed his car into a crowd of peaceful protestors. It served as a painful real-world reminder that black audiences and other people of colour are already living everything Detroit has to say.