Kathryn Bigelow has had a kind of weird career trajectory, one that seems remarkably different than most. She spent decades making somewhat interesting but not overly respectable Hollywood action movies like Point Break only to then suddenly turn into a respected auteur and chronicler of real world events almost overnight in 2009 after making her Iraq War film The Hurt Locker. I closest thing to an analogues career turnaround I can think of is Curtis Hanson going from making trash like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle to making Oscar nominated fare like L.A. Confidential, but even after he made his transition into respectablitiy he wasn’t seen as an auteur so much as a standard journeyman who just so happened to have better material to work with. The crazy thing is that, for me at least, this second phase of her career has its own set of unique problems, many of them rooted in the sensibilities of her screenwriter of choice Mark Boal. I thought The Hurt Locker was well staged and interesting to look at, but its high episodic nature felt limiting and that the overall arc only did so much for me. Zero Dark Thirty also felt overly procedural and I was frustrated by its inability of really make a statement. They’re movies written by a journalist and you can tell, their determination to just “tell the facts” ultimately just came off as kind of empty and timid. But those movies certainly looked great and had a lot of passion behind them and I’ve been waiting for this stage two Bigelow to break out and finally make a movie that was really a slam dunk for me and her latest film Detroit certainly looked like another great opportunity for that.
Detroit begins with a slightly awkward animated display explaining the Great Migration North to those who are unaware and transitions into a recreation of the ill-fated 1967 raid on an unlicensed bar in a black neighborhood in Detroit and how the anger over this action would snowball into a full scale riot. From there the film begins to explain the lead up to the shameful “Algiers Motel incident” which would leave three black men dead and several other people beaten and terrorized. This reenactment begins when members of a Motown style vocal group called “The Dramatics” including singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and manager Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) take refuge from the chaos outside by paying to spend the night at a motel called the Algiers. This seems to be going well until another person at the hotel named Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) acts on an ill-fated impulse to shoot a harmless starter pistol in the direction of some police and national guardsmen stationed nearby provoking them and a local security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) to rush into the hotel and round-up everyone they find. When the plainly racist police ringleaders Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O’Toole), and Demens (Jack Reynor) see two white women (played by Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) among the African Americans they become filled with range, line everyone up against the wall and start threatening bloody retribution until someone confesses to where the gun that took those shots is.
Detroit ends with a very carefully worded title card which says something along the lines of “because the events of that night were never fully determined in court, this has been reconstructed based on witness recollections…” and the film has also changed the names of the officers involved possibly out of fear of litigation. I’ve done some reading into the facts of this incident and as best as I can tell the movie is pretty accurate in its condemnation of these officers’ actions and of the broad strokes of what happened that night and that most of the liberties that it does take seem reasonable. However, I do think it makes a couple of liberties that come back to bite them from a storytelling perspective. Firstly, there is a lot of controversy about the initial shots that attracted the police to the Algiers. It’s not clear exactly where these shots came from or if anyone in the hotel knew anything about it as a gun was never recovered and witness statements are contradictory. The movie, however, decides to simply pick a side and show Cooper taking the shots with the starter pistol. This is a problem in part because it begs a rather simple question: why didn’t the people the police were torturing simply explain what happened? The man responsible was dead and the pistol he used (wherever it ended up) would seem to do nothing but back up their story, why not just spill the beans rather than endure this torture? The movie never really explains this. Secondly, the movie is awfully wishy washy about Melvin Dismukes’ role in all of this. The role of the real Dismukes in the crime is murky and the movie doesn’t really seem to know what to do with him. He isn’t depicted as a willing participant in the torture but he also does fuck all to try and stop it. He’s just sort of there and the movie seems oddly non-judgmental about his inaction. That the real Dismukes is alive and seemingly more vocal about the whole thing than the other participants may have had something to do with this.
However close Bigelow and Boal came to the exact truth, there’s little questioning that they’ve constructed a very passionate re-enactment but I do wonder if they perhaps errored in choosing such an extreme example of police brutality to center their film around. Earlier in the film there’s another police shooting in which a looter is shot in the back while running away from one of the cops. That incident would seem to be a bit closer to the kind of police shooting that has been popping up in the news as of late. The prolonged terror in the Algiers Motel on the other hand feels perhaps more like something out of the Stanford Prison Experiment than something out of Ferguson, Missouri. The movie does milk the suspense of the situation but given the subject matter you aren’t terribly inclined to enjoy it like you would a horror movie, though you do perhaps wonder what the film would be like if it had dropped the docudrama trappings, taken a more subjective perspective, and really let itself play out like some kind of realistic torture porn.
I’m not sure that the kind of people who make a habit of defending the Darren Wilsons and Jeronimo Yanezes of the world are going to see a whole lot of themselves in this story. Firstly, the story is located in a past in which racist cops are a lot less subtle in their animosity, and the prolonged terror seen in the story is not exactly in line with the split second shootings that have sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Those who claim that these shootings are the result of certain “bad apples” rather than inherent biases in police forces will also find their position somewhat supported by the film as the cops doing the killing seems to be really over the line evil while other cops including their commanding officer are (rightfully) horrified when they discover what happened and while they do make some clear mistakes they don’t seem to be going out of their way to cover up the crime either. What’s perhaps more familiar is the film’s ending (which shouldn’t be a spoiler for anyone who knows anything about the history of police violence in America) where we see an all-white jury do what all white juries do.
When Zero Dark Thirty came out I criticized it for being “too soon.” Not in the sense that they were tapping on a wound that was too raw, rather that it was a film that was rushed into production before anyone had any real perspective on the event they were depicting and didn’t have a coherent statement to make about it. Oddly enough I feel like in the race to be topical this movie was actually a little too late. In the 90s or in the 2000s we could have used a reminder like this that the police aren’t always on your side and need to be kept in check sometimes, but I don’t think too many people who aren’t unreachably stubborn are going to be oblivious to that in 2017. Detroit is certainly a well-made movie, and one that can spark at least some food for thought, but there are few real insights into what drove these cops to behave in such an extreme manner and it doesn’t offer a whole lot of advice as to how to prevent cops from behaving in such a way in the future. It’s not a movie that will surprise its audience and it’s not a movie that will serve as much of an inspirational rally cry to fight against the forces of intolerance. Instead we’re just given this grim two hour experience about how awful it is to be black in America when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we do need movies like that sometimes but I don’t know that we needed this one.