Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
The most surprising thing about Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’ is that it is far more concerned with white people than black. There is nothing callous about this emphasis; if it is not immediately evident, it certainly doesn’t take long to appreciate that white people are the intended audience here, and rightly so. For this is less a piece of cinema than a ferociously overdue education for a community that, as satirised by Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed ‘Get Out’, and nauseatingly articulated by recent events in Charlottesville, remains nigh on autistic when it comes to recognising, let alone challenging, racism. ‘Detroit’, set during the summer of race riots in 1967, spares no time in pitting a cast of obliteratingly vile white men, their intellectual intransigence institutionalised into minatory uniform, against a broad canvas of largely impotent African-American suffering.
The film’s commitment to encapsulating injustice is unremitting – a little girl peeking through glinting blinds is mistaken for a sniper, her bedroom swiftly reduced to a shower of brick-dust. Beaten protesters curl into juddering heaps on the curbs as businesses are torched. ‘You believe this is the USA?’, asks police officer Philip Krauss (played by the ever versatile Will Poulter). It is an unashamed and necessary exercise in pathos, and to that end is crushingly effective.
But whilst its intentions are clear, it remains difficult to know what to make of ‘Detroit’ when it doesn’t seem to be entirely sure itself. Whilst this first (and shortest) act plunges us into a cartographic sweep of anarchy, as Bigelow’s camera races about burnt-out cars and whistles through embers, crafting a sense of geographical discombobulation that is citywide in scope, the second act (and the majority of the film) squeezes all the action into a single motel which is raided by Poulter and his cohort of savage racists on mistaken grounds. What starts as a prank – a toy pistol firing blanks through a window, is again mistaken for sniper fire and within seconds, the motel, previously a sanctuary, becomes an asylum of agony.
This claustrophobic corridor and the surrounding rooms house the bulk of the film – one, long, inescapable and almost hypnotically traumatising scene. In a thunderous assault on anyone who was unlucky enough to be in the building at the time (mostly blacks), Poulter and his team subject their ‘suspects’ to profoundly upsetting physical and psychological abuse that plays out in bone-crunching real time. As the victims are lined up against a wall, their palms wobbling into a tremulous dance above their heads, they are subjected not only to interminable verbal abuse but beatings and mock executions. Forced to pray exuberantly, Poulter twists their faith into his own perverse mockery, sparing particular derision for R&B turned gospel singer Larry’s (Algee Smith) tortured talent – “He’s really fuckin’ praying” Poulter giggles, as tears ripple down bloody faces.
There is no doubt that this lengthy scene serves to intensify the trauma of race injustice, but in its deliberately contained, almost theatrical setting, it also derails any aspirations towards tonal cohesion. And that’s before the obligatory courtroom proceedings, which are as unnecessary as they are lengthy and mechanical – devoid of any of the furious, febrile tension that preceded them. The film’s impact would have been more robust without them.
The unfortunate side-effect of this is that ‘Detroit’ must be everywhere at once, and consequently often feels like it is nowhere. It attempts to illuminate on every scale until, exhausted, it wheezes into an ending that, if anything, diffuses the anxiety the film devoted so much time to creating. It feels like an investigative project more than a piece of cinema, let alone the ‘thriller’ cinemas have lazily been promoting. It exists because Bigelow is committed to a brand of ‘cinematic journalism’, pursuing her stories not because she is best qualified to do so but because she recognises that it is more important they be told at all.
And her cast cannot be faulted for plundering every depth of their talent. Poulter’s putty-like face is viciously antithetical to the bullish extent of his command. His foetal appearance implicitly undermines his authority, so he compensates for it through a hurricane of bigotry and spasms of psychopathy. Indeed, one of his most repellent qualities is to briefly, rarely and without warning shed his villainy for a placid veneer of reason. Chillingly, he is introduced to us in this way: as his large police cruiser glides among ruins, he sighs, ‘We need to stop failing these people.’ It is only when he draws a shotgun on a fleeing looter moments later that we realise he has a very different idea of what constitutes failure.
In contrast, John Boyega, a private security guard, yields a more measured performance as a black man in uniform, torn between the demands of his job and his community. As a largely passive witness to the horror unfolding around him, his occasional attempts to detoxify the situation, for which he is rewarded with universal distrust, become all the more tragic. His mortified powerlessness reflects best that felt by the audience – unfortunately for us.
‘Detroit’ is both powerful and undisciplined. Its production and performances are impeccable, and it unflinchingly depicts the inhumanity of systemic racism in America through the lens of 1967 Detroit. But its scatter-shot approach contributes to a sense of cinematic dislocation that robs the film of some of its command . As such, ‘Detroit’ is hardly conclusive in its portrayal of the Detroit race riots, let alone the wider history of African-American subjugation. But as Bigelow says herself, there is a ‘responsibility the white community needs to take for racism in America’ and, bearing that in mind, ‘Detroit’ is far from a bad start.
Detroit is directed by Kathryn Bigelow