I’ve been writing about movies for over seven years now. And in that same span of time, race has become such a huge omnipresent issue that of course it’s spilled over into cinema. A lot of cinema. And I’ve seen a lot of it. I’ve seen good movies about race and bad movies about race. I’ve seen it done modern, done in period, done with feminism, done with sexual identity, and done any number of a million different ways.
I’ve written about Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln, Moonlight, and Django Unchained. I’ve seen The Help, Hidden Figures, Sleight, A United Kingdom, Belle, and Loving. I’ve sat through Lee Daniels’ The Butler, The Sapphires, 42, Straight Outta Compton, Chi-Raq, Precious, The Birth of a Nation, Dope, Zootopia, and probably a whole ton of others I’m forgetting at the moment. To say nothing of all the ones I haven’t seen. The sheer width and depth of movies on this topic that have come out in recent memory is staggering.
And it’s all led to this. Watching Detroit, I felt like this movie put together all the best parts of what came before while discarding the worst, like all previous cinematic discussions of race were just trial and error for this one movie. For my money, this is the definitive 21st-century movie on race, the one by which all others will be measured. But we still have a ways to go.
Though the film is ostensibly based on a true story, a disclaimer at the end informs us that certain dramatic liberties were taken regarding details that were never made clear on any reliable record. The plot unfolds all over and around the 1967 Detroit riot, with the Algiers Motel raid as the movie’s centerpiece. Long story short: The city police, state police, and National Guard were already swarming all over the city before some idiot fired off a starter pistol from a window at the Algiers.
Police stormed the hotel, looking for a deadly weapon that wasn’t there. So they intimidated, harassed, and tortured every last person inside that hotel — most of whom were black, by the way — trying to scare something out of someone that could justify all the rampant civil rights violations they were committing. By the time the dust had cleared, three black people were dead and there were no convictions.
Before we get to the obvious topic, there is a lot of other stuff going on here. My personal favorite concerns a scene near the opening, in which an elected representative comes down to assure everyone that change is coming and they have to keep faith in the system. And the voters aren’t having it. What good is the same old promise of change at some point in the vague future when people are being beaten on the streets with impunity right now? How much longer can they stay patient with a system that’s failed them up to now?
Thus we’re given a choice: We can either keep talking until nothing gets done, or we can throw rocks and shoot guns until everything is rubble. And there’s no hope of a middle ground, not when violence only begets more violence.
Furthermore, the rioters have no agenda. They have no demands, no specific complaints, and no policy arguments. The rioters are simply pissed off with a system of institutionalized racism, convinced that the white government and the white police force will never let those of color be equal. There’s no way anything is getting better, so they’re just gonna burn the whole motherfucker down.
Answer with violence and they’ll take that as justification to fight harder. Lock them all up and prisons will be overflowing. Reason with them and they’ll take it as the same old bullshit. They can’t even be given what they want, because they seriously want absolutely nothing except for everything to be torn down. So what can anyone do about all of this?
The answer — presented to us by way of John Boyega’s character, more on him later — is simply to survive. When everything is out to kill you, survival means victory. It might come at a loss of pride, and it might mean living under someone else’s heel, but there’s hope as long as there’s life. Moreover, if the objective of authority is to keep the people silent and downtrodden — possibly by being dead and six feet under — staying alive to keep being heard is the best means of defiance. Especially when so many on both sides of the fight are looking to become martyrs. Though admittedly, this is a point so subtle that it might easily be overlooked, and it doesn’t do much to address the root of the problem.
To be clear, it’s not all doom and gloom. After all, this is Detroit in the 1960s — the time and place when Motown was in its prime. The music breaks are few and far between, but strategically placed and greatly effective. It provides the best kind of comic relief: one that serves as a break from the heavier drama, but with the constant underlying tension of when and how the outside world will barge in.
Even better, Motown fuels a running subplot centered on Larry (Algee Smith), who sings in an up-and-coming group called The Dramatics. Unfortunately, Larry’s dreams of stardom are shaken when he gets embroiled in the Algiers incident. All at once, he’s faced with the question of how he can ever feel secure when he’s performing at places where cops will be. Take a second to think about how fucked up that is. Moreover, there’s the question of whether he’s acting in a positive way by bringing black culture to the masses, if he’s acting in a negative way by doing a little song and dance for his white overlords, if he’s doing something positive by taking white people’s money to sing and dance… you can start to see how many sides there are to this dilemma. What’s even better is that all of this incredible thematic depth is only conveyed with a scarce few lines of dialogue and minimal screen time. That really speaks to the strength of Smith’s performance, ditto for Mark Boal’s script and Katheryn Bigelow’s direction.
Yes, we may as well get to the hard stuff.
The team of Bigelow and Boal have long since proven themselves to be incredibly adept at portraying modern evil. They’ve demonstrated an astonishing touch at showing murder and torture in ways that are nuanced and intelligent, brutal in an honest and unflinching way. It’s compelling, white-knuckle stuff without ever veering into glorification or preachiness. They don’t just make films, they make indictments. And they’re damn good at it.
That said, if The Hurt Locker was a Bachelor’s degree and Zero Dark Thirty was a Master’s, this movie would be a bona fide Ph.D. Seriously, where do I even begin?
I’ve gone on record multiple times about how sensitive I am to abuse of handheld camera, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone use it more effectively than Bigelow. She has the uncanny ability to know exactly how much to shake the camera, precisely how close-up the shot needs to be, and specifically how long each shot needs to be. Though there is one notable exception: The film ends with a gospel number that was shot far too close and far too shaky. It’s the only time I was fighting off motion sickness..
Aside from that one isolated incident at the end, the visuals do so much to put us in the right headspace. Every shot is so perfectly staged and cut that everything we (don’t) see tells us everything we need to know about how scared we need to be. No matter what terrible and awful things are put in front of the camera, we’re somehow forced to look at it without the luxuries of turning away or denying the brutality we’re witnessing. It’s positively enthralling, and that Bigelow keeps this up for such a massive stretch of runtime is positively insane.
Then we have the script and the performances, which are a huge part of where this film goes right and so many others have gone wrong. Case in point: I never want to see another movie in which the racist white guys are cartoonishly evil and hate black people for no reason at all. It doesn’t say anything new, it oversimplifies racism to the point where it’s impossible to take seriously, and it doesn’t give me anything I could understand.
Because strange as it sounds, I want to understand the white racist characters in these films. I want to see enough of myself in these characters that I can understand the subtle ways that I — as a white male of privilege — am maintaining systemic racism without even realizing it. I want to learn more about the dog whistles, the flimsy justifications, and all the other ways in which people can express racist attitudes and still think of themselves as decent people. And this movie delivers all of that and more.
Police are ordered to only fire on those who fire first, and ignore the looters. But Krauss (our main police antagonist, played by Bill Poulter) argues that looting and rioting will continue without stopping so long as there’s no punishment in place. So he shoots a fleeing burglar in the back. And that’s not even getting started.
During the Algiers incident, Krauss and his partners use all manner of horrible intimidation techniques. They threaten and beat the suspects. They use racial epithets and sexist invectives. They call the suspects whores, pimps, criminals, drug addicts, you name it. But there’s always the question of how much they buy their own bullshit. Are they actually fascist pigs, or are they genuinely trying to shut down what they believe to be a clear and present threat to their own safety and everyone else’s? Are they treating the black suspects like shit because they’re racists, or is it just intimidation? And of course we can’t forget the greater context of a city-wide war zone: Are the cops justified in their use of drastic measures to try and clamp down on the rioting, or will their actions only create a greater reaction?
Even worse, what happens when there’s no way to tell what’s posturing and what’s real? The “sniper”, for example, was firing off a toy gun for intimidation purposes, the police didn’t know that and took it as a real threat, so here we are. And during the investigation/interrogation, the suspects or even the police themselves could believe a fictitious threat made for intimidation could actually be a real danger, leading to defensive measures that end in people getting shot.
Then of course we have the self-preservation factor, and I’m not just talking about the (fictitious) sniper. As the Algiers incident unfolds, we see the state police and National Guard turn their backs because they don’t want the least bit of liability that might come with knowing what’s going on in there. Similarly, we can see Krauss and his compatriots worry less about the actual sniper (never mind any personal or bigoted motives for the “enhanced interrogation”) and more about how they’re going to get out of this without criminal charges. Yet they all get off anyway, simply because their union lawyer was doing his job. Though I’m sure the all-white judge and jury didn’t hurt. Oh, and tell me if you’ve heard this one before: “A lifetime of service shouldn’t be defined by one mistake.”
So that’s the cops on one side. Let’s move on to the Algiers guests on the other side. You’ve already met Larry, the aspiring Motown singer — he’s there with the young and introverted band assistant (Fred, played by Jacob Latimore). Anthony Mackie is on hand to play Greene, an Air Force vet freshly returned from ‘Nam. Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray are a couple of pretty young white tourists in this hotel full of black men, and you can imagine how that goes for them. And of course we’ve got Jason Mitchell as the loudmouthed would-be sniper who starts the whole Algiers debacle. There are others, and they’re all compelling to watch onscreen, but those are definitely the highlights.
And what of John Boyega’s character? Well, he plays Melvin Dismukes, a young man working as a private security guard for a local shop. Long story short, he gets mixed up with the targets of the “sniper” and moves in with the rest of the police to investigate the Algiers. Dismukes is fascinating in that he’s black, but he’s not with the riots. He carries a gun, but he’s not quick to use it. He doesn’t have the authority that comes with being a cop, which has all manner of pros and cons, but he still wants to keep peace and order. Put simply, Dismukes is our impartial third party and moral compass, patiently watching everything from the sidelines, careful to intervene only when he can make a positive difference. That said, he’s still a black man with a gun, and that doesn’t make him immune from persecution even if he toes the line and does everything right. Especially in the aftermath, when someone might be looking for someone to pin the murders on.
I daresay that this is Boyega’s strongest performance yet. But then, everyone in the cast is deeply compelling to watch. Latimore and Smith turn in heartbreaking performances. Dever and Murray run the full gamut like champs. Poulter is creepy as fuck, but never veers into archvillainy.
(Side note: As a reminder, Poulter was once cast as Pennywise in the upcoming It remake, back when Cary Fukunaga was in charge of the project. I didn’t understand at the time how that could have seemed like a good idea. Now I fucking get it.)
Also, keep an eye out for John Krasinski, Jeremy Strong, and Jennifer Ehle in notable cameo roles.
So, are there any nitpicks? Well, a few characters are kind of thin, a shot or two gets a little heavy on the shaky-cam, and of course the intense portrayal of a difficult subject matter may turn some viewers away. But perhaps the most noteworthy problem is that it doesn’t offer much in the way of practical answers to these matters of police brutality and systemic racism. The movie certainly goes in-depth as to what the problem is, how it’s a problem, and why it’s a problem, but none of this is going to be news to a huge chunk of the audience.
Then again, it’s kind of hard to fault the movie for that when nobody really has the answer. Hell, the movie’s quite a wake-up call in that regard: We’ve gone from the Detroit riots to Rodney King right up to Aaron Bailey or the racially motivated police killing du jour, and somehow we’re still no closer to figuring this whole thing out!
Is it possible that a filmmaker of color might have brought a different perspective and provided some valid answers to the mainstream consciousness? Well, it couldn’t hurt. Personally, I’d love to see a filmmaker of color get the chance to step up and give it a try. But until then, we have a searing indictment of the system and that’s certainly not a bad thing. And even if this doesn’t say anything that the more socially enlightened among us don’t already know, it will hopefully resonate with the less enlightened white people who need this message the most.
Detroit is thoroughly gripping, and devastating in all the right ways. It’s impeccably made and beautifully acted, a heartbreaking portrayal of where we are now and how far we haven’t come. It’s not preachy or overly simplistic as so many other racially-charged films are, but wickedly smart and brutally honest as only Kathryn Bigelow in her prime could possibly deliver.
This film may shock you, it may scare you, and it may even drive you to nausea (though that could be just motion sickness for those overly sensitive to shaky-cam). But those are all reasons why you need to see this movie. I’m not going to pretend that it’s some huge revelation or even a minor one in terms of solving racism in this country, but in all the modern cinema I’ve seen so far, I don’t think I’ve seen a better summary of the problem itself.