Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, “Detroit,” has all the ingredients for a perfect historical drama, but ultimately falls flat.
I wasn’t initially planning to write a full review. I got to express a few of my thoughts when we recorded the Circuit Breaker Podcast. After that, I was just going to expand a little more over at Letterboxd. But then I got to thinking about it a little more and decided that no, my thoughts on this really need more space. After we recorded the segment for the podcast, I knew I didn’t get to really express my complete thoughts, partly because of the direction that conversation went. I still appreciate if you’d listen when it’s available because it was a good conversation.
Also, I want to preface everything I’m about to say with this: you really should form your own opinion. My intention is not to try to convince anyone not to see “Detroit.” I merely want to add another perspective to a film that is divisive for a lot of different reasons.
That being said…
I went into “Detroit” feeling pretty well prepared. We’ve been tracking this film since it was announced awhile back. When the reviews finally started rolling in, they were pretty universally positive. And then, a few trickled in that weren’t bubbling over with praise. One critic complained about the fact that there are only two real female characters and that they’re both white. There are a couple of other women in the film, but they don’t have names or much dialog. Now, this is a film about a specific event in history, so the male to female ratio didn’t bother me. Yes, I want more inclusiveness in film. But I also don’t think that every movie needs to have a certain percentage of its cast be female.
“Detroit” opens on a police raid of an unlicensed club where a number of African American people are partying. The raid and subsequent arrests are the final straw in a city on the edge. It is 1967 and just weeks after race riots in New Jersey. It is in the middle of the riot that Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) of the Detroit Police Department shoots a looter in the back, leading to a murder investigation. But, Krauss ends up back on the street a few hours later, trying to help bring peace to the streets. Things are so bad that Governor George Romney has mobilized the National Guard.
Across town, Larry Cleveland Reed (Algee Smith) prepares to hit the stage as the lead singer of The Dramatics. Just as their big break is about to happen, the theater is shut down and evacuated due to escalating violence outside. Larry and his friend Fred are separated from the rest of the group and wind up at the nearby Algiers Motel. There, they meet two white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) from Ohio who introduce them to friends.
At some point in the evening, the National Guardsmen down the street hear gunshots coming from somewhere nearby. They zero in on the Algiers Motel. Officer Krauss and two colleagues arrive at the motel before the National Guard and begin a search. The officers gather everyone who’s still in the motel and force them up against the wall while they interrogate everyone and try to find the gun. The National Guardsmen assist in searching for the gun, and a local security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) shows up on the scene as well.
While most reviewers cite the motel sequence as tense and well crafted, this is actually where I started to feel much differently.
Up until now, the film seemed to be moving in a decent direction, introducing some of these people and how they all ended up on this collision course. Once the police entered the motel, however, all of that character development just stopped. These unfortunate suspects become a nameless jumble of people. Why Dismukes the security guard is even there is never addressed at all. The National Guardsmen are all but faceless presences. Only one of them really gets any screen time and its simply to shake his head and essentially wash his hands of the whole mess.
To be fair, the faceless guardsmen actually do make sense later when you find out that they aren’t even entirely sure which of them were there. So I can accept that.
Part of the issue with this Algiers Motel sequence is the lack of characterization. An even bigger part of the problem, though, is the choppy cinematography and jumpy editing. In her desire to make “Detroit” look more like a gritty documentary (a la “The Hurt Locker”), the camera constantly bounces around from one face to the next, never fully settling anywhere for a full beat. At one point, a young man is knocked to his knees and the camera sweeps past him. I asked myself, “Wait, was that Walt [from ‘LOST’]?” I spent a lot of the movie trying to figure out if it was, but never saw enough of him to know for sure until the name Malcolm David Kelley showed up in the credits at the end.
All of this motion was distracting and frustrating and, for me, cut the tension that should have been almost too intense to handle.
At some point, the officers realize this whole situation has gotten out of control and they put an end to it. But this leads to a final act that feels redundant and ineffective. The officers are arrested and put on trial. And so is Melvin Dismukes, for reasons that no one really ever tries to explain. The subsequent trial is a weird rehashing of what we just saw, but with no attempt to contextualize it. The educational moment is basic and surface-level, with no inspirational call to action either.
It all leads me to wonder who, exactly, this film is for. Who is the intended audience? And why did they want to tell THIS story?
Because most people are going to watch “Detroit” and know that, obviously, racism in general is terrible and the racism here is evil. I don’t hear anyone trying to defend it. But even this is more of an instinctual knowledge than anything we learn from the film.
Sometimes I get defensive when I read critiques of films that accuse white filmmakers or appropriating racial themes to make themselves feel better or look heroic in some way. But…I felt that with “Detroit.” The only thing I got out of watching this movie was, “Look at this horrible thing that we’re telling you about. You’re a decent person if you agree this is terrible.”
But it should have been so much more. COULD have been so much more.
When John Boyega’s Melvin Dismukes gets caught up in this investigation and is subsequently arrested and tried, we only get the immediate facts of that situation. There’s no exploration of what that did to him. No look at his experience or even, honestly, why he got dragged into it. He just suddenly gets lumped in with these officers. The scene where he is interrogated could have gone somewhere intensely interesting. But Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal just decided not to go there. It’s really too bad.
As a film, this is certainly well constructed. Even that frustrating cinematography and editing worked from a film making standpoint. They were problematic for this story, but not indicative of inept production. Yes, as a film, it’s good. But as a story, the men and women that went through the horror at the Algiers Motel deserved so much more.