Director: Kathryn Bigelow/2017
From its opening sequence of animation and title cards giving background information that leads up to what you are about to witness, Detroit makes it absolutely clear that this film isn’t going to be a passive viewing of a historical 1967 event. With Kathryn Bigelow behind the camera, be prepared to be fully immersed into the events being depicted. As she did in The Hurt Locker, and Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow simply drops you into the events allowing the details in the frame to inform the viewer of the context. While some might be tempted to see this story of abusive white cops perpetrating violence against the black community of Detroit during the 1967 riots, as a parallel to today’s tension between the police and the black community that are being played out in our culture with entirely too much frequency some 50 years later, this isn’t really the main point of the film.
Detroit follows several characters whose storylines end up converging at the Algier’s Hotel one fateful night. There are the various members of the Motown hopeful’s in a band called The Dramatics who see their big break snatched from them as The Fox Theater is evacuated before they are set to go on to perform. The evacuation is to help the patrons escape the riot that has come to their doors. Another storyline is of a black security guard who, along with a group of cops, state police, and national guardsmen, is drawn to the Algier’s Hotel to stop a sniper but who ends up being entangled in the sinister actions of a racist cop and his partners who are using the tension of the riots to act as cover for their darkest impulses with their perceived power as officers of the law, which results in the murder of several black youths.
In light of the various political and racial situations in our present times, however, Detroit shows that the world is not black and white. Not in terms of race, and definitely not in terms of answers. So much can complicate how one reacts when one seeks to exert extreme power over the powerless.
Bigelow doesn’t have an overt agenda, but make no mistake, she isn’t seeking balance with this film, either. This isn’t about showing both sides of an issue. She is covering an event, and with that she is simply trying to be true to the feelings, emotions, and facts of the story. Even the closing title cards demonstrate only taking liberties in the story that is still based on the best documentation that could be found regarding these events and their aftermath.
The film feeds off of, and creates for the viewer, a tension that is felt by those citizens in Detroit who are fed up with their frustration over a lack of economic success. They are fed up with the increasingly brutal tactics steeped in racism of the Detroit Police Department, and they are frustrated with the politicians that keep promising that change is coming if they’ll just remain patient. While she isn’t trying to provide balance, there are balancing views to the emotionally charged take on these events, if you look at the whole of each frame in the film. Her camera is simply meant to capture the event, allowing the viewer to be immersed in every aspect of it. Only then can one make judgements about what they’ve experienced.
Will Poulter (The Revenant, The Maze Runner) portrays Officer Krauss as a man without remorse for the way he abuses his power and encourages other to do the same. There is no one who watches this film that will find anything worth praising in terms of this man’s character and actions, and yet Poulter is able to make this man human so as to avoid him just being a two dimensional villain. This is to the credit of Poulter, as well as the script, and Bigelow.
John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is also given the chance to truly show off his acting chops and craft a character that is put through the ringer through these events and yet provided no easy solutions. His subtlety was striking, especially if you only know him as Finn in the latest Star Wars films. Anthony Mackie (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), who has worked with Kathryn Bigelow in The Hurt Locker, gets a juicy role, albeit a small one, to expose much of the underlining racism that exists in the actions of Officer Krauss.
It is the actions of Officer Krauss that expose a number of questions that are bound to come out of this movie. How was this all allowed to happen? Why did the system protect such behavior by the officers and do little to protect the very citizens they are sworn to protect and serve? Why did so many capitulate and refuse to stand up to a vile man such as this officer and his partners? The answers are easy to come by if someone is simply asking the question where you are free to respond, safe the actual events that might lead to all of this. In light of the various political and racial situations in our present times, however, Detroit shows that the world is not black and white. Not in terms of race, and definitely not in terms of answers. So much can complicate how one reacts when one seeks to exert extreme power over the powerless. Systemic and institutional racism, raw emotion, being shut out of opportunity, privilege, naiveté, poverty, economic disadvantages, false optimism, engrained cynicism, lack of trust in the institutions of society, abuse of power, failed leadership, and more all feed into this tinderbox, and Bigelow lays it all out there, allowing you to feel it fully.
As someone who is white, who has benefited from the basic privileges that brings in our American society, and as someone who was born after the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s, this film is an important one to experience, digest, wrestle with and seek to have conversations about. While there has been many improvements in race relations over the 5 decades since riots gripped Detroit, the fact is that too many still feel the same helplessness and anger as is depicted onscreen in this story.
Just this week in my hometown of Houston, there is a viral video of a black teenage man who was stopped by a white police officer for mowing yards in the neighborhood and going door-to-door to pass out his business card. Defenders of the police officer point out that this young man has had a prior warrant for making threats to do bodily harm in the past as a way to justify the officer’s taking out his handcuffs to arrest this young man when that man asks the officer for his business card so as to have the officer’s name, a basic right as officers should always provide someone their ID and badge number when asked. While I hope that the truth will all be brought out as it relates to just this event, and that justice will be served in court, the fact is that we can’t always trust the jury system to work for everyone either. Detroit, the film, also demonstrates this sad fact.
Detroit, as I stated earlier, does provide balance to the highly emotional and charged events. We see officers who are sickened by their colleagues and seek to bring them to justice for their vile ways. We see officers seeking to help those in need, even in the midst of the riots. We see those in the black community who, while angry at the same root problems that have helped create this tension leading to riots and looting, refuse to be a part of the destruction. Instead they seek to continue to work hard, speak truth, and assist their neighbors. The church is seen as a place of refuge then, and possibly now, when it lives out its stated beliefs as it seeks to respond to injustice as Christ would, without shying away from calling it out.
Detroit is another film that deserves award consideration much like A Ghost Story, the upcoming Wind River, and Dunkirk. Kathryn Bigelow has crafted a film that no one wants to willingly endure, but one that everyone should see. You should watch it so that we are more apt to actually have the tough conversations we need to have so that together we can begin working toward eradicating the very things that are so engrained in the fabric of our culture that history continually keeps repeating itself. We can end the cycle of violence, hate, and anger, if we are willing to face what perpetuates this type of violence, anger, and hate in the first place.