An animated prologue sketching the history of the ‘great migration’ of African Americans from the countryside to the industrialised ghettos of the city; a raid on a Detroit speakeasy; a concert cut short due to rioting in the streets and the riot itself – and all this within the first 15 minutes or so. Kathryn Bigelow’s much-anticipated follow-up to Zero Dark Thirty (2012) wastes little time getting to the action. “This is like fuckin’ ’Nam,” says Will Poulter’s character, a trigger-happy policeman, of the surrounding chaos, and it’s true of both the riot and its cinematic recreation: with its choppy editing, tight angles and a camera in constant motion, Detroit has the feel of a news report from a war zone.
Things momentarily settle down for the setup to become clear. Seeking refuge from the violence on the streets of Detroit, musicians Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) make their way to the Algiers motel, oblivious to the fact that it is about to become the alleged source of non-existent sniper fire. Drawn into an act of mass hysteria and driven by a barely concealed racism, armed police, including the sadistic Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) descend on the motel and begin a brutal interrogation that can only end in tragedy.
The interrogation is the film’s centrepiece, and it’s seriously powerful stuff. Forget any IMAX 4D presentations that may claim to be the future of cinema – this is as raw and immersive an experience as they come, giving Dunkirk a run for its money in terms of sheer claustrophobic unease. It’s also a horrible experience, with Bigelow never shying away from capturing the sadistic policemen inflict horrendous acts of violence.
What should follow is some sort of comment of the violence. Instead, however, the third act collapses into a courtroom drama montage that is both overlong and underdeveloped. There are also more serious problems with Mark Boal’s writing. The performances are excellent across the board but the characters can be broadly categorised into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ with little room for nuance. Most interesting in the ‘good’ camp is John Boyega’s character a black security guard who must attempt to placate the police – Boyega brilliantly conveys the muted desperation of his impossible balancing act – but the script never gets under the skin of his complicity in the whole affair. Boal, a white man, is also all too eager to remind us that not all white people were perpetrators of racism. It’s true, of course, but detracts from the racial issues at the heart of the film.
In fact, Detroit ceases to be the story of a tragedy within an eruption of violence caused by systematic racism, but rather that of a few bad people. The brutality of the cops is often placed before the suffering of the victims, but the film doesn’t fully commit to the idea, as it should, that this brutality is symptomatic of an uncaring and racist system that pervades to this day.
All this isn’t to say that Detroit is a bad film – the whole cast is at the top of their game, and Bigelow’s direction is fantastic. It’s also a depressingly contemporary film, and Bigelow is right in her conviction that this is a film that needs to be made. But did Bigelow need to make it?
Image: François Duhamel