Overview: Against the backdrop of Detroit’s 1967 riots, a small group of young people, nearly all of them black men, are systematically brutalized by police in what would come to be known as the Algiers Motel incident. Annapurna Pictures; 2017; R; 183 minutes.
The Story: Detroit opens with a gorgeous animation sequence, neatly summarizing the legacy of slavery, the Jim Crow South, Great Migration, and White Flight. It’s a lot to cover, but the context is welcome, since immediately after, we jump into the action of the central story mid-stream. The city of Detroit, long simmering with racial tension, explodes in the summer of 1967. The story, the bulk of which takes place over just one night, begins here. We’re introduced to the cast of characters who’ll later find themselves together at the Algiers Motel, including the hardworking Melvin Dismukes (a slow-simmering John Boyega), who works at an auto plant by day and as a security guard by night, and members of the Motown group The Dramatics (including Jacob Lattimore as Fred, and Algee Smith in a breakout performance as the group’s de facto leader Larry Reed). With the night’s violence escalating, Larry and Fred seek the relative safety of the seedy Algiers, where they make the best of things by connecting with Julie and Karen, white girls they meet for the first time that night. People stream in and out of rooms at the motel, looking for sex, company, or conversation. For reasons best not explained here, the Detroit PD and National Guard, already on tenterhooks from days of rioting, quickly home in on the Algiers, as a source of trouble, a problem to be dealt with.
What follows is nearly an hour’s worth of some of the most sadistic abuse I’ve seen on film in recent memory. To what end, I’m still not sure. Graphic violence and the threat of violence was so constant and unrelenting, I just put my head down at one point, unwilling to watch anymore. Despite actors who are willing to dive deep (Anthony Mackie, you deserve better), Mark Boal’s script only gives them the outline of a character to work with and some cringe-worthy dialogue.
The final third of the film feels like a slapdash collage, with disorienting rhythms and confusing turns. Throughout the film there are plot points referenced and then never brought up again, including several I was still scratching my head over on the ride home. At two-and-a-half hours, and with such heavy source material, viewers are already asked to invest a lot. Were we rewarded with anything beyond stock characters—stoic dads and ghostly grieving mothers we’re meeting for the first time—this could be forgiven.
The Storyteller: It would feel wrong to only address this film’s shortcomings. To be sure, this is a film made under the guidance of a competent and confident director. To not acknowledge Bigelow’s achievements as a female director in a deeply sexist industry or to discount her past body of work (please let’s never gloss over Near Dark) would be intellectually dishonest. This is a director who innately understands action, and I continue to be fascinated with her choice of subjects. She’s unafraid of complexity and difficult stories and both she and screenwriter Mark Boal (with whom she’s worked to great success before) do seem conscious of the criticism of their involvement and it’s evident the film was made with care and good intentions. But the reality is that both chose to take this on, and in doing so they deserve to be evaluated as white artists telling black stories. I don’t believe directors can only tell stories that correlate with their skin color, but would this particular story have been a more deft, subtle, and personal film in the hands of a black screenwriter or director? I can’t answer that, but I do know what my suspicions are. In fact, I’d argue one of Bigelow’s shortcomings here as a director has nothing to do with race, but instead, her pre-occupation with (and tacit endorsement of) state power. Often thought of as one of the few cerebral directors of action films, it’s noteworthy that she returns again and again to films that center around authority figures or figureheads of an authoritative system. In of itself, I have no problem with that; I just don’t think she’s a particularly good interrogator of it. The bad guys in this film are really bad. And the good guys (particularly the police who don’t condone the violence or racism) are so good. It sets us up for a kind of white knight reading of the good police in the film. Just as I’m sure there were individual officers as good and bad as are depicted here on the Detroit force, choosing to focus on these extremes with little nuance raises questions this film doesn’t seem interested in answering. We spend more than two hours on a few (truly horrific) “bad apple” cops, rather than examining the rot at the root.
The Moral: To say Detroit is a difficult film is as much understatement as it is obfuscation. It’s certainly brutal to watch, but why? There’s little room for subjectivity in the interpretation of what went on at the Algiers—nor what was going on in Detroit or the nation at that time. It might be easy enough to concede that the film is hard to watch because seeing that historical reality onscreen is painful and carries with it the kind of discomfort borne of philosophical growing pains as the mind broadens to accommodate a new point of view—one that challenges you to interrogate where you stand. I’d argue those ends are where a better film would have stopped.
So how can the accurate (more or less) recreation of historically documented events be a bad thing?
I can’t speak to the way anyone else should approach the film, particularly viewers of color. But from my personal perspective as a woman, what I can argue is that if I were to watch a film that depicted the degradation, beating, and violence this film did toward women in the same way it was depicted toward black men—with little emotional context, a dearth of fully realized characters and no new ground covered—I’d feel used.
At one point in the film, Larry expresses his doubts about what it means to make music for the enjoyment of a white audience, to offer up his gifts and vulnerabilities for someone else’s entertainment. Later, Bigelow give us this moment’s callback, as the camera pans the crowd at a Dramatics show and lingers, almost imperceptibly, on a dancing, carefree white woman, and we briefly empathize with Larry’s disgust. Later, we once again hear Larry singing, though now leading a church choir. The camera circles him, briefly frames him as he channels his pain into a gospel song. For a moment, I also began to feel the swell as Smith’s transcendent voice rang through the theater. I was only swaying to the music for a few seconds before the memory of the woman Bigelow’s camera captured snapped me out of my reverie. I don’t think Bigelow meant for that to happen. That’s a shame since it was the only moment during the film when I experienced that meaning-making pain I mentioned earlier— the kind that makes you quickly draw a hand back from a hot stove. You only have to do that one time. After that, you know better.
Overall: Strong performances from John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, and relative newcomer Algee Smith elevate a weak script and somewhat scattershot direction. Detroit is not a bad film. It’s just one that willingly took a big risk on an important story and came up short.