I saw Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit more than 24 hours before sitting down to write this. I’m usually capable of clacking away at my keyboard shortly after the theater lights come up, my thoughts on the movie in question fairly crystallized as the credits roll.
Detroit is different. Unlike Bigelow’s last two collaborations with screenwriter Mark Boal—The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty—it’s messy as hell. It’s simultaneously too impersonal and too intimate. It seeks to truly contextualize the events it’s depicting, but in doing so, it over explains some things and leaves out others.
Overall, I liked the film. A lot, in fact. It’s quite obviously a step down from the flawless Hurt Locker and immaculate ZDT, but the visceral filmmaking style that made those two films doesn’t go away with Detroit. Its use, however, is fair game for detractors, as is the film’s final third, which is a wet fart compared to what came earlier. But I found that immediacy totally gripping, and the film’s hard-to-ignore relevance today makes it absolutely worth watching and discussing.
The film depicts the events of five sweltering days in 1967 Detroit when the city erupted in violence over inappropriate, often blatantly prejudicial treatment of the city’s black citizens by its primarily white police force.
For the first few days, we jump around from scene to scene without an anchor, but that all changes when some of the men [and women] we’ve met converge on the Algiers Motel. There, three racist cops, led by Krauss [Will Poulter] and with an assist from the passive National Guard and a reluctant black private security guard [John Boyega], accuse a terrified [and innocent] group of young black men [and, notably, two white women with them] of firing upon the National Guard. The resulting confrontation ends with some blood being shed.
The film opens with a three-minute animated prologue that traces the film’s roots all the way back to the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the industrial Midwest in search of good-paying factory jobs. This results in large numbers of white citizens moving to the suburbs, and black urban neighborhoods are targeted by cops and largely ignored by other city officials who provide services that could improve the neighborhoods.
This explainer is important as it tells us Detroit doesn’t happen in a vacuum. This was a long time coming, and as the first makeshift Molotov cocktails get thrown through shop windows, we understand why [even if that still doesn’t make it right].
The cops’ explanations are far simpler than those of the rioters: They’re racist pigs. Poulter’s character is particularly awful and not even shy about it, which make the film’s inevitable conclusion all the more difficult to swallow. [C’mon, you know how this movie ends...]
But the courtroom scenes don’t work for reasons outside of injustice. They’re just bad. John Krasinski looks lost as the defense attorney. The scenes are chopped up within an inch of their life [as if Bigelow knew they weren’t compelling and just wanted to get to the other side]. Considering its preceding section is probably the best horror film of the last few years, it makes this toothless sequence stand out all the more. She gets some points for a genuinely moving coda, but at 150 minutes, Detroit could really have, and probably should have, left the trial for title cards.
The film’s depiction of police violence has and will continue to get it into hot water, not unlike Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of torture which got it investigated by Congress. Some will say that the film fetishizes what happens to these young men and women. Others will surely claim the film is unfair to cops in general, suggesting they’re all like the three assholes at the Algiers.
I think Bigelow strikes a good balance and a fair, albeit deliberately cinematic, tone. I’m also a white man from the suburbs, so take that for what it’s worth. All I can truly speak on is if Bigelow’s movie thrilled me, moved me, made me think. The answers are yes, yes, YES. My reservations—with the exception of the third act, which I’ve taken to task enough already—primarily have to do with the fact that the film make me extremely uncomfortable, but that’s ultimately the point, and with some space, I can appreciate that quality, and the film as a whole. It’s great.