I recently had an interesting conversation with a black colleague. We were discussing the last year’s spate of racially aware films (The Birth of a Nation, Loving, Get Out, etc.), and she said that she didn’t like them. She felt that they perpetuated racial tensions, rather than attempting to deal with them; that whenever one was released, her social media exploded with black solidarity slogans that, she feared, flew in the face of the ideals of tolerance and acceptance for which we should be striving. I fear that Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, while as fine a piece of filmmaking as you’re likely to see this year, won’t do anything to address my colleague’s concerns. Bigelow’s dramatisation of 1967’s Detroit riots presents just the facts – the violent, bigoted facts – and has no intention of offering solutions or hope.
The riots are Detroit’s setting, but the focus is the Algiers Motel incident, in which three young black men were killed and another seven (along with two white women) beaten. The police officers responsible for what amounted to murder were never found guilty; two of them owned up to their crimes, but their testimony was deemed inadmissible by the judge. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, using eye witnesses and testimonies (admissible or otherwise), have pieced together a likely version of the events (though a title card before the ends credits states that some of the film is speculation).
The incident, that night of fear and terrible, needless violence, is the centrepiece of Detroit. Bigelow uses handheld cameras throughout, which gives her film an immediacy; an immediacy that becomes (purposefully) unbearable in the hour long motel sequence. The victims are ordered against a wall by the police officers, unable to see everything that goes on. But we can. Even if we wanted to, Bigelow won’t let us look away. It’s a gruelling hour of cinema, one that is sure to stay with audiences, whether they’d want it to or not.
The nightmare of the Algiers Motel incident is heightened by the very real performances of the cast. The standout here is Will Poulter as Krauss, a fictionalised version of David Senak, the officer responsible for much of that night’s tragedy. Poulter (who has come a long way since Son of Rambow) is, quite frankly, terrifying. His Krauss exudes blue-collar menace. He is a high-functioning sociopath, a man who sees the mistreatment of Detroit’s African American citizens almost as his civic duty. At one point he gives one of the white girls a comforting smile, to let her know that it’ll all be over soon. It is the smile of a man who has seen someone else give a comforting smile, perhaps on the TV, but has never attempted one himself.
Once three young black men are dead, Bigelow moves onto the immediate aftermath of the incident, and that’s where the problem begins. As a film, a piece of cinema, Detroit, even in its late scenes, is never less than engaging. But, in its (admittedly laudable) quest to present as true an account of these events as possible, it never offers even the dimmest ray of hope. Perhaps that is fitting. After all, the victims and the families of the deceased never received any closure, so why should we, the audience? I can’t shake the feeling, though, that Detroit does nothing to foster peace and goodwill. There was little tolerance on the streets of Detroit in 1967; there could have been some tolerance in a film in 2017.
Larry Reed (Algee Smith, another great performance), former member of Motown group The Dramatics, was one of the victims of police brutality at the Algiers. Some time after the incident, he walks out of a recording sessions, remarking that he doesn’t want to make music for white people to dance to. Nobody will be dancing to Detroit, but I think this fictional version of Reed would have a similar reaction to Bigelow’s film. It is a film for white people to watch and say, in tones of deepest sympathy, “Wasn’t that awful?” It is also (and I may be overstepping my bounds here) a film for black people to watch and become angry at the way they were (and, in some quarters, still are) treated. I don’t think my colleague would like Detroit. It highlights racial tensions, but offers to do nothing about them. And, at this tense time, we need more than that.