Editor’s Note: Detroit opens in wide release today, July 28th.
There’s a moment in Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Point Break, Near Dark) and Mark Boal’s masterful, searing follow-up to 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, where a middle-aged, African-American man clutches framed photos of his reportedly dead son, his face a mask of grief, doubt, and denial. He refuses to admit that his teenage son is dead, the victim of what we euphemistically call an “officer-involved shooting” in the middle of the riots – a “rebellion” per the title cards that open Detroit – that left Detroit, once the beacon of hope and optimism for African-Americans escaping from the post-Civil War Deep South, to all but literally implode in paroxysms of violence against an oppressively racist social, political, and cultural order. But for the father clutching the framed photos, racism and a racist, oppressive system that actively encouraged his son’s murder are from his mind: He’s another father grieving the premature death of a beloved son. It’s a poignant, understated moment in a devastatingly powerful, deeply resonant film filled with an overabundance of devastating, resonant moments, each one a reminder of how little progress we’ve made as a nation even after the election and reelection of the first African-American president.
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s masterful, searing follow-up to 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty . . .
Detroit opens with a brief primer about a city that welcomed African-Americans, but only if they conformed to and abided by the de facto segregation that separated whites and blacks, the affluent from the poor, with few, if any, opportunities for economic advancement supposedly at the center of the American Dream. Bigelow segues from the primer to a vérité-style overview of Detroit as it descends into chaos after a heavy-handed police raid on an unlicensed, after-hours nightclub. As the police ferry men and women into police vans, a crowd gathers in the street outside the club. The familiar injustice gives way to a long-simmering anger at a fundamentally unfair criminal justice system. As the police retreat in a hail of insults and rocks, a protestor throws a rock through a storefront window, effectively starting the figurative fire that inevitably leads to the breakdown of social, political, and legal norms. Violence turns outward toward the police officers they rightly see as oppressors or the tools of their oppressors. Violence also turns inwards too, if not toward each other, then to the stores and businesses that actively participate in their oppression.
But that’s all prologue to the historical events at the center of Detroit, a night of state-sponsored brutality and terrorism at the Algiers Motel. A momentary, if no less momentous, reckless act – a young African-American man, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), fires a starter pistol towards a group of police officers and National Guardsmen several hundred feet away – leads to the death of several men. Boal’s studiously researched script places the blame squarely on three patrolmen, racists to varying extent and all too willing to abuse their positions of power (they’re both repping for the Man and are, in fact, the Man personified). Led by Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), the patrolmen storm the motel, round up every African-American male they can find plus two white women, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), also present at the motel, using any means they feel necessary, including repeated beatings and faked deaths, to intimidate the men and the women into confessing the identity of the shooter or the location of the gun. The two women’s presence further antagonizes the police officers that knowingly function as the enforcers of white privilege and white patriarchy.
Bigelow and Boal try to offer the obligatory moment of uplift before the end credits make an appearance, but it feels forced and hollow (because it is) . . .
The encounter ends with the inevitability of tragedy, the foreseeable result of a system that treated – and still treats – African-Americans not as full and equal citizens, but as colonized and the police as colonizers or their enablers. The nearly intolerable tension of Detroit’s middle hour eventually gives way to a less emotionally engaging or dramatically fulfilling epilogue that leaves the Algiers Motel behind for an extended overview of the aftermath, from the obvious post-traumatic shock suffered by one of the survivors, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a singer with an up and coming pop group who took refuge at the motel when the riots left him and his best friend, Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), more or less stranded in the middle of an urban war zone, to the arrest and trial of the three patrolmen and the security guard, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who initially aided the police officers in the search for the sniper, but who became both an unwilling witness and a passive collaborator to the brutality and violence that left several men dead.
Bigelow and Boal’s decision, however, to explore the aftermath of the Algiers Motel incident offer few insights and too many reminders – intentionally, of course – of a criminal (in) justice system where police officers can use a combination of acting in self-defense or being in fear of their lives as legally justified excuses to avoid imprisonment. A late-film speech by newly minted congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso) about the “failure of the criminal justice system” both misses the point – it’s a feature, not a bug where black and brown men and women are involved – and proves to be altogether familiar. We’ve heard that same speech countless times before and we’ll likely hear it countless times in the future. Bigelow and Boal try to offer the obligatory moment of uplift before the end credits make an appearance, but it feels forced and hollow (because it is). Their vision of an America divided, perhaps irreparably, along racial fault lines offers little in the way of hope for meaningful, long-lasting change. It’s better, however, to be honest than to offer false hope for a future that may never arrive.
A poignant, understated moment in a devastatingly powerful, deeply resonant film filled with an overabundance of devastating, resonant moments, each one a reminder of how little progress we’ve made as a nation even after the election and reelection of the first African-American president.