On the night of July 25th, 1967 two factions coalesced on the Algiers Motel. A small contingent of African American men weathering the storm of Detroit’s 12th Street Riots, and a platoon of enraged white cops looking for the person/persons who fired a gun at their patrol from a window of the motel.
So the morning after the press screening for Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit I found myself talking about the 67′ 12th Street riots with an older guy originally from the Motor City whom I work with. He told me a story about his father, a police officer, and his mother, driving to church when they saw a guy throw a brick through a furniture store window. His father stopped the car, told his wife he’d have to call it in, and then twenty more people arrived and started looting the store. The off duty cop looked at the numbers, looked at his wife in her church dress, quickly did the math, and started the car back up and went to Mass that morning.
The reason I bring this up is because this one small story had more dimension and personal perspective than the one I was told during Detroit. Which is an odd thing to admit, if any filmmaker has discovered ways to extrapolate and analyze controversial subject matter from hot button topics (water-boarding potential Al Qaeda sources in Zero Dark Thirty springs to mind) and if any subject needed more extrapolation than unjustified police shootings in the here-and-now, certainly it is this filmmaker and this topic.
Detroit opens well. We’ll overlook the history lesson on how the African American community went from rural living to urban living in the neighborhoods of big city centers like Detroit, (though I do feel this is our first notice that Bigelow means to spoon feed us, that the trust between creator and appreciator so prevalent in her last few films has now mysteriously evaporated) and focus on how Kathryn Bigelow puts our collective boots on the ground in a city-scale martial military operation on American streets. The correlation between National Guardsman running armored, fully armed anti-personnel vehicles through American neighborhoods, as compared to the controversy surrounding the militarization of the modern police, is an obvious mental leap to make.
Those that fail to learn from history being doomed to repeat it, and all of that.
Not only does it feel timely, but it’s genuinely riveting stuff. The vortex nature of a riot, how it can be set into motion, and how it can swallow the average man or woman with average ideals on peaceful coexistence, (my co-worker’s parents on their way to church for instance) and once caught up in it, realize that they are truly ensnared in something much bigger than themselves. Racism is bigger than we are.
Soon after we’re introduced to Detroit’s key players. Star Wars’ John Boyega playing an armed security guard for a bank located in the war zone, forced to shrug off being called an “Uncle Tom” in the face of having a paycheck every week. We’re introduced to Will Poulter’s (The Revenant) Officer Krauss – a pug-faced killer cop who thinks nothing of shotgunning unarmed black suspects in the back. We meet Algee Smith’s Larry, a Motown hopeful and lead singer for The Dramatics who has his first performance at the famous Fox Theater shut down because of the threat of looting and rioting. In one of the few touching scenes in Detroit, once everyone is evacuated, and his band has left him alone on the Fox’s stage, Larry grabs the microphone and belts out a song to the empty auditorium. Exploiting what may be the only moment he’ll ever get to stretch his lungs in the distinguished venue.
These three first act introductions promising future tragedy and vulgarity once all these moving parts arrive at the central location in Detroit – The Algiers Motel.
I don’t think you can honestly write about Detroit without first disclosing information Kathryn Bigelow must have consciously decided to disclose as an epilogue. This has been a dramatization – the epilogue reads. Because of conflicting testimony we don’t know everything that happened in the Algiers Motel this terrible night in 1967 – is the general gist of the message. Historical photos of the actual people involved in the Algiers Motel killings are shown as well. The three murderous policeman’s faces all blurred digitally in what must be an effort to prevent lawsuits.
This information and its latter placement is absolutely invaluable to the experience of this film. Detroit is a scathing indictment against racism in modern America. Its central thesis excruciatingly uncomfortable, as maybe it should be. One African American character in the film compares the Detroit riots to the Revolutionary War – “Liberty or death” he iterates. But viewers deserve to be informed upon opening that what they are about to see is screenwriter Mark Boal’s best guess at how three men died before having the worst racial propensities of the 20th Century unleashed upon them. In the best interest of everyone involved – viewer, filmmaker, and the people who lived through this horrific encounter – this epilogue should really have been in the prologue. Give us the facts about not knowing all the facts. To present it this way seems disingenuous, especially when dealing with subject matter this incendiary.
Detroit’s problem isn’t that it desires to take a Brillo pad to society’s racial insecurities at a time when those insecurities are either tipping into a neo-civil rights movement or have left most of America utterly exhausted on the topic. Detroit’s problem is that Kathryn Bigelow can’t seem to identify with either the subject matter or the people caught up in the events of that night in 1967. Shot as reportage, she’s frankly incapable of reaching any further into the interior of this story then her camera lens allows. For lack of a better word, it feels like she’s profiling.
To lend a level of integrity to the subject of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg gave us fully dimensional members of the Nazi party as well as the Jews suffering under their regime. Men of different lineages capable of both fantastic good and fantastic evil, but still men. The concept is simple. Spielberg trusted that viewers need all the information to process and assess the moral character of a character. You can’t cut corners. If the audience is given depth and complexity, they’ll come back with a confident verdict of either villain or saint.
On the contrary, Kathryn Bigelow gives us twin archetypes – villains and victims. The white cops fear and hate the blacks of Detroit. The blacks of Detroit fear the white cops, and hate them in return. A few Florence Nightingale types (Boyega’s character) attempt parley between the factions. The Algiers Motel is presented as an oasis magically tucked away from the mayhem in the streets. It’s a delicate sanctuary soon fractured by white hate. It’s a stage. The characters inhabiting it, tragically, are stage props. Their emotions feel saccharine. Their motivations feel counterfeit. Flat pawns on a very flat board. As such it’s easy to resist the important messages behind this admittedly heavy handed work.
The blame must lie with the filmmaker in this instance, and not with the volatile subject matter. Bigelow simply can’t find her footing in Detroit 1967. Instead we get an odd mixture of revolution and revile-ution. Her villain cops a mixture of apoplectic ignorance (which, most unfortunately, plays as comical in some extremely tone deaf instances) and nearly primeval hatred. Their interrogation of the black men in the Algiers Motel foyer is a sweltering, suffocating ordeal that’s sure to leave most audiences squirming in their seats. If it isn’t an hour and a half of racist pig cops torturing, terrorizing, humiliating, and finally murdering young black men, it certainly feels like an hour and half. It’s Eli Roth’s Hostel movies without the frat-boy satire.
It pains me to say that what should have been one of the most important films of 2017 ultimately had me reflecting on the back catalog of Eli Roth. Not where I wanted to be at the end of the night. Detroit is certainly an interesting and important story to tackle – and kudos to Kathryn for taking it on – but this is damn sloppy work. We shouldn’t have to trudge through premeditated Oscar bait so early in August.