Movie Review: Detroit
Kathryn Bigelow‘s newest shows off her impressive talent as a director capable of creating relentless tension, but her cast and the social message are the real stars here. This is, unfortunately, one of those great movies that all the people who really need to see it and understand it never will. (See also: Fruitvale Station)
Set against the backdrop of the 1967 Detroit riots, this tells the true story of the police raid on the Algiers Hotel where several people were shot and police accused of misconduct and brutality. This has been described as a horror movie where the unkillable monster is racism, and that is about the perfect description.
But even better, it depicts racism not as just a character flaw of a few bad apples, but as a systemic oppression that disadvantages people of color at every turn. So, the monster is not just specifically the bad cops– it’s the whole system. And so even though this is a movie about what happened 50 years ago, it’s a movie about what’s happening yesterday, today, and tomorrow as systemic racism continues to plague us. It’s also a morality lesson about what happens when a director like Bigelow, who is white, uses the privilege she has to elevate the stories of others and speak out against these injustices.
A director at the top of her craft
Kathryn Bigelow is amazing here. All of her ability to craft tension and human drama that we’ve seen in previous outings like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty are on full display here. Most of this centers around the major focal point of the movie: a situation at the Algiers where the police line up everyone against the wall and interrogate them about who has a gun and who was shooting at the police.
She also expertly draws out amazing performances from her cast. John Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a security guard who gets caught up in the raid on the Algiers and is stuck between worlds as he tries to de-escalate the situation. Algee Smith is Larry Reed, lead singer of soul group The Dramatics, who was at the hotel along with his friend and the band’s manager, Fred. Smith also lends his singing voice to the film, which provides some amazing color to an otherwise stark, bleak depiction of those days. He also appears on the soundtrack with Reed himself to provide a sort of musical denouement for the film. Some final scenes showing his life in shambles after the incident also show the after-effects of this brutality, and his performance is on point.
Anthony Mackie (Captain America:Winter Soldier, Civil War; The Hurt Locker) also delivers a stellar performance, but both he and Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton, Keanu) are drastically underutilized. In fact, neither of them shows up until halfway through the movie. But given how the film was marketed and Mackie receiving top billing, you might expect more screen time. But that expectation will be unfulfilled. But what it lacks in quantity, it amps up in quality. Playing a recently discharged Army vet, you can see the wheels in his head turning: “I risked my life in ‘Nam for this?!?”
What you can say, though, is that each actor gets their due, gets their moment to shine, and it all plays in to making the main story a cohesive whole. Bigelow knows not only how to extract every ounce of tension out of these scenes, but also Oscar-worthy performances from several of her actors.
The movie’s major flaw that is also its biggest strength
But, this movie has some problems. I mentioned Mackie not showing up until halfway through. That’s part of it. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to the following conclusion:
My wife and I recently celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary. (WHAT?!) It made me think back of the time of ring shopping and what a process that was. But we ended up getting a great deal on the main diamond in her ring because it had this giant inclusion, or flaw, in the middle of it. But somehow that little hollow space made the gem sparkle even more brightly.
Detroit has a problem like this. We don’t meet any of our main characters until almost 20 minutes into the movie. Our opening scene is the incident that sparks the Detroit riots, as police raid a club operating without a liquor license, and we’re introduced to Officer Frank (Chris Chalk — Gotham, Homeland), the only black officer in this all-white police squad.
His story is then abruptly dropped and we don’t see him again.
As the riots begin, we see a young Congressman John Conyers speaking to an angry crowd and calling for peace.
And then we never see him again.
And Mackie and Mitchell don’t show up until halfway through the movie.
The audience gets a sense of violent whiplash as we’re thrown new characters and left wondering exactly whose story we’re supposed to be following.
This is a problem, but when you look at it again, it is brilliant.
One of the things Bigelow does best is she inherently sides with the rioters. A riot is a grim, irrational and desperate act. But the opening of the film serves to put us in that mindset and gets the audience to take part of the mob mentality where it truly does seem like the only solution is to start smashing and burning things.
It hurts the cohesiveness of the story, but I think the payoff in tone and theme is a good trade-off. But, it’s still a flaw in what is otherwise a really good film.
The race issue and using your privilege in a positive way
So, a lot has been said about Bigelow, a white woman, making this movie so specifically about racism and police brutality. In a post film Q&A livestreamed to Alamo Drafthouse locations nationwide, Chris Chalk mentioned that this was the way it was supposed to be: Kathryn Bigelow could choose to make any movie she wanted to, and she chose to tell this story. That’s how you use your privilege — to lift up others’ stories and others’ voices.
She’s not appropriating the story, nor making it about white characters, nor telling it from their point of view, as is often the case with so many movies about race (Mississippi Burning, for example).
And perhaps most importantly, she isn’t telling a story just about racism and racism as a personal flaw. She paints it as systemic and woven into all of the various ways a black person may interact with the system.
This centers specifically on her depiction of the police and the other law enforcement involved. On the micro-level, we have our three main cops who are eventually charged with the murders and assaults at the Algiers. And we see three very different types of people– I will call them the Three Little Piggies.
WARNING: The rest of this section contains plot elements/historical elements that some would consider SPOILERS. If you don’t want to know more, skip to the next section until after you’ve seen the film.
The first pig built his house out of straight-up racism. But even he doesn’t think he’s a bad guy– he sees people burning down their community and asks “How is this America?” He sees this as a failure of the government to smack down bad behavior– that the police need to come in with a strong hand and take out the bad guys. (Sound like anyone we know?)
The Second Little Pig isn’t necessarily racist, but he’s working the system pretty hard. When The First Little Pig says he shot someone because he was reaching for his gun and had a knife, he corroborates the story, “Yeah, I heard him say ‘Drop the knife.'” Good cop covering for bad, and is indifferent about race, or at least not inherently anti-black.
Our Third Little Pig is really nervous and probably isn’t malicious at all. But because he isn’t playing the same game the other two are, ends up using their same tactics to even more brutal effect.
Pigs 2 and 3 eventually squeal, because they know their actions were bad, but then their confession is thrown out because they were deprived of their union lawyer before they were questioned. The system worked to protect all three cops under a code of silence where they all cover for one another.
And so it doesn’t take every cop being a racist to cause a problem. The system is the problem.
One of the other problems was the lack of accountability or oversight by other law enforcement. The raid on the Algiers took place because National Guard troops thought they were under fire from that vicinity, and fired back. National Guard and State Police personnel were on the scene, but eventually left when they saw what a shit show it was becoming. A Michigan State Police officer saw how bad it was, and walked out, telling the three white Detroit PD members, “this is a local police issue.”
And there were other failures– ones all too common today, yesterday, and most likely tomorrow. There was the all white jury. There was the slick lawyering that made the case that we couldn’t be sure who shot whom at the Algiers. And then there was the sea of faces in the courtroom– the front rows filled with white faces in blue police uniforms, and the back rows filled with black faces. Again, Bigelow’s eye for detail here helps show how even these more subtle nuances create a tone for the system and set it up to fail to deliver justice.
Again, in this whole narrative, there only had to be one guy who really hated black people. But the system literally allowed him to get away with murder.
I’m not so naive to think we can ever get rid of racial prejudice, (nor should we try to legislate this), but I do hope that we can take a hard look at our systems and ask how they might perpetuate inequalities and oppression.
Detroit vs. Dunkirk
It’s hard to talk about Detroit without referencing its peer, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Spoiler alert: (not really) I’m giving both films the same rating– a solid 4 out of 5 stars. But when I wrote my review, I noted how white and male-centric Nolan’s choices were and why that rubbed me the wrong way. Others have weighed in on whether telling the story this way whitewashes history, eliminating the contribution of non-white soldiers.
No matter where you come down on this argument, I want to make one thing extremely clear: these are artistic choices, and especially when you have directors like Nolan and Bigelow who have a large amount of creative control over the film (in the case of Nolan, he was acting as writer, director, and producer), these choices are worth pointing out and asking why.
Whenever a director makes a film that is completely white and completely male, that erases from the historical record the contribution of non-whites and non-males and contributes to a culture that says that white and male is standard, and everything else is an aberration.
That is not to say that Dunkirk is racist, or Christopher Nolan is racist. But they are films designed to do well at the box office by portraying white male heroism at its best, just as in hundreds of previous movies about white male heroism in World War II. And they are designed to be awarded by the Academy and other groups who judge films. It’s not that individual Oscar voters are racist– but there’s a reason #OscarsSoWhite was a thing, and it’s that a film like Dunkirk is designed to please that section of the audience. It is a movie that is everything we are told makes a movie great.
Let’s also be clear– Detroit is also designed to be that same sort of Oscar-bait, but for a completely different reason. When people talk about Hidden Figures, 12 Years a Slave, Fences, or Selma, they don’t bring up the same things a person brings up first when praising Dunkirk. They immediately go for talking about the racial aspect of the film and how heartbreaking it is, etc, etc. It’s simply not the same sort of meritocracy we expect, or want, out of our prestige pictures. Even in judging the relative merits of movies, we hold movies with a racial element to a different standard. And that’s the difference between personal racism (let’s be clear– no one who needs to see this movie to understand what’s happening in terms of race in this country is going to see it or have their minds changed by it) and systemic bias. Oscar voters didn’t need to be personally racist to snub Ava DuVernay for best director for Selma and instead nominate Bennet Miller for Foxcatcher. (Yes, I’m still mad about that. Probably always will be.) But systemic biases can be in place that cause these outcomes.
As for directors’ choices, Nolan chose to make a war movie about World War II– a story that anyone who paid attention in history class knows about. He chose for his heroes archetypal British stiff-upper-lip types, especially the people he loves to work with, and did great with them! Bigelow chose to make a movie about an incident largely forgotten, and also largely prescient in terms of the current state of affairs in 2017 with the Black Lives Matter movement responding to the murder and assault by police of hundreds of African Americans across the country. She chose a story with a diverse cast and diverse characters. And even though there were two white women who were brutalized by the police as well, she never makes the story about them. (As an aside, there are still not enough female roles in this film, especially not enough for women of color. Despite history being history. . . well, I’m just tired of Samira Wiley showing up in a walk-on supporting role and not getting to do more– you know what I’m saying?) And she told her story in a gripping way that never lets the audience go. And despite the film’s dropping characters in a jarring and unsettling way, it serves the tone and theme of the film.
Nolan took an easy story to tell– one that has been told before in dozens of different ways– and made it intentionally hard with a chopped up timeline and continuity. Bigelow took a hard to tell story and delivers it seared and sizzling to the plate, but still raw and bloody in its center– “black and blue” as you would order it at a steak joint. Nolan chopped up the story and timeline to show off how smart and skilled he is. Bigelow chose to drop characters and make the audience uncomfortable for the sake of making them uncomfortable and in the mindset of what it must have been like to be in Detroit in 1967. They’re both ultimate craftsmen at the top of their game. But the reason they’re making unconventional choices is a world of difference.
So both of them are excellent films with a few flaws, but the context of why they are the way they are is all the difference.
It’s pretty clear how much I liked this movie. I am still not perfectly comfortable with its problems, but I think it was a good way for Bigelow to get what she wanted. Again, this is one of those unfortunate films that everyone who needs to see it never will. And those who will probably already know– but hopefully this will fuel their passion to maybe make real changes in how we do things in our country. Bigelow might be preaching to choir, but someone needs to be passing out hymnals. And this is as good of a song as we’re going to get.
4 out of 5 stars