Review: Detroit (2017)

Although the discussion around Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit has detoured into broader debates about cultural appropriation and whether white directors can or should tell stories about black people or other people of colour, in the cinematic landscape as it exists in the summer of 2017, there are few directors more suited to the material of Detroit than Kathryn Bigelow. Her most recent work, all done in partnership with writer Mark Boal, is sociologically-minded, rigorous filmmaking that bends closer to journalism than most Hollywood films. Detroit exploits this journalistic approach even more than either The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty. It is a harrowing, intense, and often-blunt work of sociological examination.

Detroit begins with an awkward animation explaining the context for racial tensions in America of 1967. It then depicts the precipitating event of the riots, as well as their rapid escalation, before narrowing its focus onto the Algiers Motel Incident of July 25, 1967. It matter-of-factly introduces the main players in the incident: police officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith), and security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), and then brings the characters together in the hotbed incident where police officers, led by Officer Krauss, hold black civilians hostage in the annex of the Algiers Hotel after the officers witness a perceived sniper attack from one of the rooms. The incident is a microcosm of the police brutality and racism that led to the Detroit Riots, and left multiple black men dead. The event’s similarities to current issues of police murdering black men only adds to the film’s potency.

This section, which is the centrepiece of the film, commands more than an hour of its runtime and plays essentially like a horror film; it’s more akin to Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room than Ava DuVernay’s Selma or other Civil Rights epics. In terms of sheer filmmaking craft, it’s a masterful sequence, uncomfortable to the point of revulsion.

Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (Paul Greengrass’s frequent collaborator) employ handheld cameras to erase the distance between viewer and character. Bigelow and Boal also restrict the narrative perspective to the events around the annex so our claustrophobia is never eased. This restriction combined with the intensity of Poulter’s performance as Officer Krauss leads to unbearable tension. Simply put, you do not know, moment-to-moment, what the cops will do next or whether the sympathetic characters held hostage, Smith’s Larry chief among them, will be shot in the head. There is no escape for them and all the power lies in the hands of the cops, who make a bad situation worse with every rash decision they make.

This sequence is tense, but it’s also intelligent in its depiction of how small abuses of power escalate and how when cops, or others in positions of power, make mistakes, it is so easy to double-down on their decisions instead of admitting wrongdoing. For example, the situation only occurs because Officer Krauss kills an unarmed man named Carl (Jason Mitchell) running from the scene. Needing to create a justification for the shooting, he holds the other hotel guests hostage, trying to suss out a gun, instead of merely copping to his past mistake. In other moments, the film exposes the danger, and unfortunate frequency, of cops protecting cops first and foremost. For instance, when cops recognize the wrongdoing of their fellow officers, they take a blind eye to the transgression. In Detroit, when the state police arrive and realize how poorly Officer Krauss is handling the situation, they leave the scene, not wanting to get their hands dirty, but they also don’t report the situation. They merely look the other way.

This central section is also key to Bigelow’s treatment of masculinity in the film. Spurned on by a comment my wife made after the film, I started to contemplate Detroit as a film as much about masculinity as race. For me, this critical approach clarified the film’s balanced focus on the various men at the centre of the Algiers Motel Incident; it also connected the film to Bigelow’s film work as a whole.

Bigelow has always been a master of examining how men react in violent situations, starting with the small-town conflict of The Loveless and working all the way up to the warfare of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. (In Zero Dark Thirty, she even foregrounds the idea of women examining male violence and warfare, using Jessica Chastain’s Maya as a stand-in for herself.) Here, she examines how men’s perceptions of “proper” masculinity affect their actions within racially-charged situations. For instance, Will Poulter’s Officer Krauss is a self-described man “who does what needs to be done,” thinking of himself as the kind of deliberate man of action necessary to solve the chaos of the Detroit Riots. Because Officer Krauss disagrees with the “wait-and-see” approach of the government and feels powerless to stop the riots on a grand scale, he aggressively pursues any perceived-rioters on the personal scale, using deadly force without hesitation.

Boyega’s Melvin, on the other hand, sees himself as a something of a racial go-between, someone who can serve as a bridge between white authority and black criminals, defusing the violence of both in the process. In the end, both men’s perceptions of themselves do harm to themselves and others. Officer Krauss’s decisiveness combines with his racism to disastrous effect, destroying the lives he encounters, while Melvin’s deliberate moderation aligns him with authority at the same time as it neuters his ability to help victims.

This sort of incisive look at masculinity and the way it plays into racism and police culture is a part of what makes Detroit a fascinating movie. It also does a lot to make up for some of the film’s other deficiencies, such as its pat courtroom ending and occasionally-clunky inclusion of noble cops to offset Poulter’s monster, Officer Krauss. Detroit is not a perfect movie and there certainly is opportunity for a black filmmaker to make a personal picture about the Detroit Riots; but it is a very good movie, both painfully intense and smart. It has the potential to spark conversation at the same time as it aligns us closer with the victims of police brutality and racism, helping to reduce the hateful fissures that racism has exploded open, and that seem to be growing wider, in 21st century America.

8 out of 10

Detroit (2017, USA)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; written by Mark Boal; starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, with John Krasinski, and Anthony Mackie.