Detroit *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow.
Written by: Mark Boal.
Starring: John Boyega (Dismukes), Will Poulter (Krauss), Algee Smith (Larry), Jacob Latimore (Fred), Jason Mitchell (Carl), Hannah Murray (Julie), Jack Reynor (Demens), Kaitlyn Dever (Karen), Ben O'Toole (Flynn), John Krasinski (Attorney Auerbach), Anthony Mackie (Greene), Nathan Davis Jr. (Aubrey), Peyton 'Alex' Smith (Lee), Malcolm David Kelley (Michael), Joseph David-Jones (Morris), Laz Alonso (Conyers), Ephraim Sykes (Jimmy), Leon Thomas III (Darryl), Gbenga Akinnagbe (Aubrey Pollard Sr.), Miguel Pimentel (Malcolm).
That centerpiece sequence takes place at the Algiers Motel in Detroit, in the summer of 1967, in the middle of Detroit Riots or Detroit Rebellion (depending on the language you choose to use). This was far from the first racially motivate riots that broke out in America in the 1960s. The films opens with what kicked off the unrest – basically the straw that broke the camel’s back – when cops raided an unlicensed after hours drinking club in the black part of town. Those not arrested, got pissed, and tensions boiled over – and riots broke out. A few days into those riots, the National Guard has been called in. A group at the Algiers motel – mostly black, but with two white girls – are hanging out in the Annex of the motel – and one of them thinks it will be funny to fire off his starts pistol in the direction of the amassing National Guard and police officers. They come to the motel, and want answers – and are willing to do anything to get them. It has already been established that their leader – Krauss (Will Poulter) is a violent, racist – we see him shoot an unarmed black man in the back for stealing groceries, and then having the audacity of running away (he’s basically given a warning, and sent back to work). He kills one of the men right away – and lines the rest up against the wall. Through the hours and hours that follow, he and his cohorts will “play a game” with the rest of them to get answers. One by one, they take the rest of them into another room, and “pretend” to shoot them, to get the rest to talk. Until one of them doesn’t pretend anymore. Killing one of them – as they were running away – may be okay, but two? By the end of the night, another black man will be dead as well.
This centerpiece section is brilliantly directed by Bigelow, and does a great job of establishing the various characters through their actions. Krauss is the leader – the man who can bully the rest of the cops to go along with him, speaking in “coded” language about “them” and about how they are likely are guilty of “something”. His two fellow officers Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole) – are not as overtly racist or sadistic as Krauss – but they go right along with everything. There’s also a National Guardsman there, who plays along up to a point, and then leaves. And there is also Dismukes (John Boyega) – a black security guard who tags along, in the hopes of keeping things under control, although he is clearly unable to do so. The black men tortured by the cops include a Vietnam war vet (Anthony Mackie) who is smart and disciplined enough to realize fighting back will get him nowhere, two members of a musical group – Larry and Fred (Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore) who were just trying to lay low until the heat died down of the riots, and got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s also Carl (Jason Mitchell) – who earlier breaks down the fear black people experience that white people do not understand. The two white girls who are there (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) – set off the cops as much as the black men do, simply for being with them. The cops immediately assume they must be prostitutes, and want to know why they sleep with blacks, but not “nice” white guys like them. The sequence is brutally intense and unrelenting. You sit and watch, and want to step in, want it to end, and it just keeps going. Like her previous two films – The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty (also written by Boal) – Bigelow wants her audience on edge the whole time, constantly on the brink of going over.
Everything that surrounds this brilliantly, brutally effective sequence is not nearly as effective. Part of that is just the inevitable boring parts of having to set everything up – this is a big movie, with a lot of cast members, and movie parts, and requires a certain degree of exposition to place it in context (the opening, with intertitles over paintings is more effective than the other earlier scenes). But much of it seems to Boal and Bigelow trying to draw parallels to then and today – using language that would sound awkward now, but even stranger in the context of 1967 – the movie almost goes out of its way to make sure you know that not all cops are racist, but tries (less successfully) to paint them as part of a larger system of institutional racism, that allows and excuses their behavior.
A film like Detroit is clearly meant to make its audience uneasy – which it does, and at times brilliantly so. At other times though, it makes them uneasy in another way – because it is trying so hard to draw connections to today, and trying so hard to be both fair to everyone, and yet not excuse any of them either. This has been Bigelow and Boal’s approach in their last three films – and honestly, it worked better in The Hurt Locker and (especially) Zero Dark Thirty than it does in Detroit. I think they are trying to sidestep the traps in films like this – films that document historical traumas that allow audiences to feel comfortable, because as horrible as they are, they can be relegated to the past. Bigelow and Boal try very hard to make sure you do not forget that these cannot be so easily relegated. They aren’t entirely successful – but I admire the effort.