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‘Detroit’ Gives Us the Who, What, and Where — but Not the Why

Kathryn Bigelow’s film, based on the 1967 Detroit riots, reaffirms her flair for visceral, intense action. But her technical expertise is let down by Mark Boal’s unimaginative script.

(Annapurna Pictures)
(Annapurna Pictures)

How do you make a movie about a political act as overwhelming as a citywide riot that never wonders whether the rioters — in this case, the black population of Detroit — have a political imagination? That’s a tough pill to swallow, but Detroit is hardly the first or only offender. Kathryn Bigelow’s new film is set amid the riots that overtook Detroit for five days in 1967. All told, those riots, which swept the city after a nighttime raid on a bar became the last straw in a series of confrontations between black residents and the Detroit police, resulted in 43 dead and over a thousand wounded.

Bigelow’s film, which was written by Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), her regular collaborator of late, is specifically concerned with the police and military assault on Detroit’s Algiers Motel, which resulted in the deaths of three black men and the severe beatings of seven other black men and two white women. This being a Bigelow feature, the violence is what stands out. It is a movie filled with the constant crunch of bodies against walls and batons against bodies, as well as with the consuming terror of the unexpected.

It’s a hard movie to watch, in other words: electrifyingly good in some ways, embarrassingly off-base in others, but above all, viscerally, nauseatingly affecting. When it opens, police are raiding an after-hours joint just north of 12th Street, in a black neighborhood of highly segregated Detroit. They’re lining people up out front of the bar and shoving them into police buses to haul them in. It quickly becomes a dangerous scene. A crowd builds. The police begin to feel threatened. After the police leave with their fresh haul of arrests, the crowd remains on the streets, getting angrier. As captured by Bigelow, with her flair for action, the riots escalate at a terrifying but nonetheless convincing clip: a few broken store windows at first, then small properties being set ablaze, and soon, outright destruction. The emphasis is on the rage.

Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow (Getty Images)
Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow (Getty Images)

This is the spark: The rest of the movie’s remaining two hours are the blaze. And together, Bigelow and Boal work to set up a context for what’s going to happen at the Algiers Motel. Bigelow and Boal rightly see the Detroit riots as part of a broader history, even if their way of conveying this is sometimes lacking. Before the movie starts, we get an illustrated history lesson, styled to invoke the paintings of Jacob Lawrence, the estimable black painter most famous for a series about the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the urban centers in the North. We come to understand, through this brief, simple introduction and the constant use of archival footage throughout, that the Detroit riots of 1967 were the culmination of events long brewing. The film’s characters, based on real people, are slipped, sometimes uneasily, into that overarching history.

We spend most of our time with a handful of the characters who’ll wind up in conflict at the Algiers: a pair of singers from a Motown-aspirant group called the Dramatics; a trio of corrupt Detroit cops, led by Will Poulter, who, early in the riots, gets away with shooting a black looter in the back with a shotgun; and, importantly, the black security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who, as both a black man and a man in uniform, would seem, morally, to be caught somewhere in the middle. Others slip into view, too: a pair of white women visiting from Ohio, an Air Force veteran played by Anthony Mackie.

Tensions begin to escalate at the Algiers when one of the residents, a black man named Aubrey, fires a starter pistol at some police and National Guardsmen patrolling nearby. The officers hear the shot, sense it’s a sniper, and immediately hop to action, swarming the Algiers, storming the bedrooms, and hauling everyone downstairs as they look for the gun. Then the interrogations begin, and the terrifying mind games, and the cover-ups. To her great credit, and despite her talent for nerve-jangling excitement, Bigelow never allows any of this to feel anything but sickening. The jittery realism of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty is back, with Bigelow adopting her trademark observational perch, in which her shots home in on the action with the rapid confidence of a director shooting a nature documentary. Outdoors, she loves to shoot from a distance, safe from the action while nevertheless seeming to lap up every nuance of it. Indoors, her camera sticks close to the actors’ faces — excruciatingly so, in a movie like this. Her style is as frantic as it is informative.

John Boyega (Annapurna Pictures)
John Boyega (Annapurna Pictures)

Bigelow’s technique is ultimately better than the movie: Boal’s writing is holding it back. Boal, who began his career as a journalist, knows how to collect true, well-reported stories and fashion them into plausible collections of scenes. And he knows, thanks to probably too many Screenplay 101 guides, how to give his characters their proper "arcs." But he doesn’t seem to have much of an imagination about his characters’ psychologies. Attempts to make Dismukes seem morally complicated, for example, largely amount to Boyega playing a silent witness to violence, just as Jessica Chastain played silent witness to torture in Zero Dark Thirty, without much examination of the implications for who he is. Flaws like this are a little harder to notice in the hands of a director as instinctive as Bigelow, who sands Boal’s writerly clichés down into the rough, hard-won, and hard-working archetypes that give her actions clarity.

In Boal’s script, it’s easier to imagine that there were good cops — even amid what the movie characterizes as systemic police violence — than it is to imagine just what effect this event had on the black community. History, it seems, stands in for all of that: We apparently already know how the community feels. This is how I felt about David Simon’s HBO limited series Show Me a Hero, too; it’s how I generally feel about the work of liberal artists who seem much more invested in wrestling with how to represent black victimhood than they are in wrestling with what comes after. These are two parts of the same story. And the gaps here more or less mean this movie isn’t really about black people as people, nor history as a lived experience, but is instead invested in a dutiful, "just the facts, ma’am" reenactment that pretends those other things are already a given. Boal, and Bigelow beside him, refuse to speculate about — or imagine — the rest.

It’s telling that, despite how carefully the riots are set up in the film, we never really come to see or understand how they ended. We skip ahead, instead, to the investigation, trial, and verdict. This is of course the necessary addendum to this story: We need to be reminded that the cops on trial for this incident got away with it. But it eventually becomes clear that we spent the majority of the movie looking at terror and injustice without much of a chance to understand how those involved were able to withstand it. They for the most part don’t have genuine inner lives, just outer wounds, neat character arcs, and obvious moments of semiresistance. I’m not asking Detroit to do something silly to counteract that lack of imagination, like invent covert Black Panther meetings or stuff more blandly declarative statements about race into its black characters’ mouths than it already does. I’m simply asking it to be more curious about the emotional and political lives — at least as much as the tear-streaked brutalized suffering — of the people at its center. I don’t hate Detroit; I simply can’t recommend it.