Amidst the chaos of the Detroit Rebellion, with the city under curfew and as the Michigan National Guard patrolled the streets, three young African American men were murdered at the Algiers Motel.
Some are surprised that Katheryn Bigelow, a white female director, known for “Zero Dark Thirty” and her Best Director win of 2010 “Hurt Locker,” would choose to make a film about one of the most racially charged incidents in recent American history. Making “Detroit” at all in this current, heightened, political, and racial climate is risky, but Bigelow, who is driven to tell these stories about abuse of power, felt strongly that this brutal incident, stemming from decades of oppression and abuse, needed to be known and that now was the time. Certainly, the release coincided with the 50 year anniversary of the riots.
In heightened Bigelow fashion the film is shot so as to convey a documentary and journalistic style. Indeed, some of the scenes, and particularly the 40 minute long sequence of torture and murder, were so violently graphic and enhanced by the hand-held camera work that I found myself squirming in my seat on more than one occasion. She filmed the entire movie in sequence and in limited takes, which can serve to capture spontaneity and authenticity, and she interspersed actual live footage and photographs of the riots (what is called a “rebellion” at the beginning of the film).
Ultimately, though well-meaning and poignant, there was an eagerness about this movie that made it feel a bit rushed and lacking in depth. Bigelow is increasingly invested in informational filmmaking where she is communicating something sociologically meaningful that can be not only discussed but hotly debated. As a result, the film feels more like she is “reporting” on an incident than a story where characters are richly developed within this context. As a work of art this makes it difficult to care about the characters, who end up a bit boring. Anthony Mackie, who plays the Vietnam vet, is superb, as he was in Hurt Locker, but I wish he had more screen time, and was more richly characterized. And Will Poulter, who plays the prime police perpetrator named Krauss, is perfectly cast as a ruthless racist, but is flat and one dimensional. Even John Boyega, who played the security guard Dismukes, is never able to soar, as he tries to convey his angst driven by his inability to save people.
After all, Bigelow had many of the actual victims from the incident readily available to her in order to creatively infuse back story. One of the girls at the Algiers was on set almost daily, helping Bigelow understand and depict the details accurately. Indeed, if the intent was to drop the viewer into the incident like a fly on the wall, then kudos, but any vision beyond this was sorely absent. Of course, this whole story stirs up horror and grief, but could it have been more, even something redeeming? In the end, we are left with ruined lives and a sense of hopelessness, simply mirroring what many are feeling today. “Detroit” points to an important conversation but does not moderate it for the good: It accurately depicts the horrendous incidents of that night, but does not serve to help us rise above them.