By Preston Wilder
We are not an American newspaper. That’s not usually relevant when discussing American movies, but it’s very relevant in the case of Detroit, which – despite being set in 1967, the year of the Detroit riot when 43 people died – needs to be viewed in the context of America’s current convulsions about race. The film draws a straight line between racial violence in ’67 and the hopeless, divisive mistrust (in this case, a black singer who quits the business because he no longer wants to sing for white listeners) that typifies the likes of Black Lives Matter today. The political message is admirable; the rest seemed to me rather muddled and hollow, then again I’m not American.
Politics is one thing – but what about Detroit as a movie? Despite the title, it doesn’t attempt an overview of the riot, honing in on one specific incident that took place at the Algiers Motel on the night of July 23. Its centre-piece is a long, intense sequence (it’s probably almost an hour long) in which a half-dozen cops and National Guardsmen – led by bad apple Krauss (Will Poulter), who’s already being investigated for having shot a looter in the back – interrogate the motel guests over a supposed shooting, lining them up against a wall and employing increasingly unlawful and sadistic techniques (a.k.a. torture). The film stands or falls by this extended, uncomfortable set-piece, even beyond its topical focus on police brutality.
The cops are white, of course; the guests are African-American (‘Negroes’, in 60s parlance), apart from two young white girls whom the cops find disgusting for having slept with black men. The sequence is undoubtedly harsh, but I have to say it didn’t really grip me. One problem is that most of the victims know, or suspect, the truth – viz. that the ‘shooting’ was actually carried out with a toy gun, which the shooter’s friends saw him carrying earlier in the night – yet no-one says anything, even as the night drags on and the cops get increasingly frustrated. Even allowing for mutual mistrust, and the self-destructive impulse already apparent in rioters who trash their own neighbourhood, you’d think someone would’ve cried out a panicky ‘It wasn’t even a real gun!’ at some point.
Still, that’s a relatively minor quibble (one can’t really grumble about implausibility when the script is based on official records of what really happened). The bigger problem is perhaps that director Kathryn Bigelow, who made The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, doesn’t like to dwell on psychology; her preference has always been to reveal character through action – but the action here is limited and largely internalised, the Algiers Motel sequence being a static, essentially theatrical set-up that desperately needs character detail for its dramatic escalation to work. The characters aren’t fleshed-out in Detroit: Krauss, the main villain, is cartoonish, while the victims are mostly interchangeable. The one exception is Algee Smith in a touching performance as ‘Cleveland’ Larry Reed, the original singer of soul-music legends The Dramatics – yet even that is mostly because of what happens to him before and after the Algiers sequence, not the sequence itself.
Oddly, the film works best in the first half-hour, with the riot underway and people trying to lead normal lives in a city in chaos; these scenes have the feel of a zombie movie, with the zombies massing outside, whereas the middle hour is more like a home-invasion movie. “We’re rehearsing!” say The Dramatics, holed up in the Algiers after a gig gets cancelled but refusing to succumb to the madness. A security guard (John Boyega) introduces himself to the National Guardsmen guarding the street, bearing a pot of coffee as a peace offering. The two girls have fun in the motel, at least till the guy with the toy gun freaks them out with some scary roleplay. “Now everyone knows what it’s like to be black!” he says acidly, and suddenly we’re in Black Lives Matter again.
That, of course, is the point – and US viewers will surely see more in this well-meaning document, even as it’s already fallen foul of that country’s fraught racial politics (“A film by white people for white people,” scoffed Detroit-born John Sims – who is black – on the Al-Jazeera website). I found Detroit to be a well-made but thinly written, misconceived movie that places all its chips on a single detailed reconstruction, doesn’t quite pull it off, and ends up an honourable failure – but it’s also very obviously intended as a trenchant comment on a divided society, especially at the end when The Dramatics go back in the studio and a plea is made for the power of Art (i.e. music) to bring us all together, a plea that unfortunately falls on deaf ears. You don’t have to be American to find that heartbreaking.
DIRECTED BY Kathryn Bigelow
STARRING John Boyega, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith
US 2017 143 mins