Sunday, August 06, 2017
Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit aspires to be nothing less than a consideration of African-American experience, one filtered through a few horrific days in 1967 Detroit. The bar that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal set for themselves is an insanely high one, and their success will no doubt be perceived in terms of how audiences feel about more recent events in American society. Whatever Bigelow and Boal's specific intentions, the issues raised in Detroit are a part of our national discourse. In thinking about the film it's worth thinking both about to what degree its fair to critique a film on the basis of the climate surrounding its release, and the amount of responsibility that artists owe their communities. Detroit begins with opening titles detailing the Great Migration, the massive movement of African-American population to the North and Midwest that began after World War I. Further titles also allude to the subsequent movement of whites from urban centers to the suburbs and the fact that Detroit's African-American population was policed by a mostly white police force. Bigelow puts these titles over illustrations that evoke the mid-20th century painting of artists like Jacob Lawrence, and the effect is oddly distancing. It is as if Bigelow and Boal want us to know that we are about to view the results of a sociological experiment, one whose subject is something not quite of our time. The film proper begins with a police raid on an after-hours club, a raid led by an African-American detective (Chris Chalk) who is nervous about completing his work before the neighboring residents can express their anger. A bottle is thrown, a fire is lit, and Bigelow details the subsequent riots with a mix of archival and staged footage cut together. Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso) is depicted urging citizens not commit violence against their own neighborhoods, while Bigelow also includes a clip of the real Governor George Romney calling out the National Guard.
Detroit is in part a film about how people function in relation to institutions, and the first main character we are introduced to is Detroit Police Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) Early in the riots Krauss fatally shoots a man stealing groceries. After being hurriedly questioned by a detective Krauss is told he'll probably be charged with murder and then told to return to duty. The fact that the police department of a major American city appears to have no means for self-examination in a moment of crisis shouldn't surprise anyone who has been watching the news, but the moment is still chilling. Will Poulter as Krauss looks unprepared to be a cop in this film, and that's deliberate. The casting is a masterstroke, as is the choice to have Poulter play the character as in over his head rather than overtly racist. The counterpart to Krauss in Detroit is security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). Where Krauss attempts to use the power of the police as a shield, Melvin works on the margins of power structures because it's all he can do. We see Melvin at work bringing coffee to National Guard troops when shots are fired from the direction of the Algiers Motel. The Algiers Motel incident is the center of Detroit, and Bigelow has turned what occurred there into a sustained exercise in tension. We travel to the Algiers with aspiring Motown star Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Lattimore). The two are seeking refuge from what's happening on the streets, as earlier that evening Larry's group The Dramatics had been pulled from the stage as nearby rioting intensified. Larry and Fred fall in with another group at the Algiers that includes Carl (Jason Mitchell), who gives a memorable speech about the limits of black agency against police power. There are also Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two white women that Larry and Fred hope to know better. When a starter pistol is fired from a window, the resulting police response ends with three dead men and Melvin accused of murder. Krauss is the Detroit PD officer in charge at the scene, and the actions of he and his men are a toxic combination of racism, fear, and unpreparedness that the actors play expertly. All of the actors - including Anthony Mackie as an unlucky veteran - are superb here and Bigelow doesn't pull back from the horror of the situation. (There is a cutaway to a State Police Captain, who knows something is wrong but doesn't want the responsibility of intervening.) Melvin tries to distract by leading a search for the gun the police are convinced is there, but even then we're always aware of just how confined the space at the Algiers is and how narrowly even more violence was averted.
The Algiers sequence is so compelling that the rest of Detroit seems somewhat perfunctory by comparison. The investigation of the officers' behavior at the Motel is curiously elided, we don't see Krauss's partners (Jack Reynor and Ben O'Toole) being questioned and so it's a surprise when their confessions are thrown out. The subsequent trial feels rushed, and it's not even made clear that Melvin was actually put on trial and acquitted in federal court alongside the policemen. The character of Melvin illustrates why Detroit doesn't easily bend to rules of dramatic structure. We're conditioned to expect that Melvin will do or say something to mitigate what's going on, but of course if he had interfered with cops it would likely have meant his life. Boyega plays the role with great charisma, but the character winds down awkwardly along with the rest of the procedural part of the film. The conscience of Detroit is located in Larry Reed, who survives the Algiers but can no longer participate in making music for the consumption of white people. Bigelow ends Detroit with Larry singing a gospel song, and just as with the titles at the beginning the choice serves to tamp down our emotions. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal had a responsibility to tell the story of Detroit as accurately as they could. They have done so with great skill, but the choice to frame the story as a historical tragedy rather than the result of institutional racism and incompetence might mean the film will matter less than it should. But then again, it isn't Bigelow and Boal's job to make us angry about abuses of police power. Artists in any medium owe us honesty, but it's up to us to decide what comes next.