‘Detroit’ is a searing re-enactment of the 12th Street Riots that rocked the titular city in 1967. The narrative focuses on the horrific events that transpired in the Algiers Motel, a regular hangout spot for African Americans, which left three dead, as well as the judicial aftermath. Director Kathryn Bigelow, previously an Oscar winner for ‘The Hurt Locker’, makes the action unbearably intense and immersive, aided by her accomplished collaborators and a game cast, although the aim of Mark Boal’s screenplay could have used some clarification.
Despite the broad canvas of the historic riots from which the film draws its narrative, and the lofty aims of its expansive title, ‘Detroit’ uses the Algiers Motel story as a study for the
wider conflicts throughout the city and the nation drawn along lines of race. A line from a brief prelude sums it up nicely: “By the 60s, racial tensions had reached a boiling point”.
After the city’s largely white police force break up a party full of black locals at a speakeasy, a gathering crowd quickly devolves from protesting into rock throwing, looting and arson. It is the against the subsequent five days of violence, which sees the National Guard dispatched to assist the local and state police, that the film’s story takes place.
After the sounds of starter’s pistol being discharged sends a group of National Guardsmen ducking for cover, the suspected sniper is traced to an annexe behind the Algiers Motel, a noted hangout for African Americans. Three local cops arrive on the scene first and take control of the search for the shooter and the weapon. They are Krauss (Brit Will Poulter, terrifyingly believable), Flynn (Australian Ben O’Toole) and Demens (US-born but Irish-raised Jack Reynor). Having just been put on notice for shooting at and killing a looter, Krauss is a lethal combination of unhinged and volatile, with nothing to lose but shouldering a fair axe to grind with the black community. Also early to arrive on the scene are National Guardsman Roberts (Austin Hébert) and black security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega, excellently conflicted). Among the annexe guests are Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), who fired the initiating shots, Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), the lead singer and manager of Motown band The Dramatics, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two white tourists visiting the city from Ohio, and Greene (Anthony Mackie), a returned serviceman looking for work. By the end of the night, the racism and cruelty of the policemen will result in the deaths of three of the black youths.
As a tale of morality, ‘Detroit’ has plenty to say. It depicts the abhorrent moral corruption of the racist policemen that sets the events in motion and continually exacerbates the situation. This is contrasted with several of their colleagues, who despair of the trio’s bigoted actions and what they mean for the city. There are those National Guardsmen and Michigan state police who remove themselves from the situation, turning a blind eye to the terrorism inflicted upon the youths by the three cops at the heart of the incident. Then there is the wider question of the culpability of the community that instigated the riots. The violence, inflamed by centuries of oppression and prejudice, is ultimately a stepping stone on the road to the events in the Algiers Motel, and several political figures are shown speaking out against the riots in the film, including John Conyers Jr. (Laz Alonso). There are no easy answers offered by the film (the only truly black and white judgments are those passed against the three racist cops), which is part of its power.
Working with veteran cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who imbued ‘The Hurt Locker’ with an unnerving sense of paranoia, Bigelow uses her trademark penchant for wide coverage to strong effect. Editor William Goldenberg cuts frequently between multiple cameras, weaving a tapestry from the multiple perspectives that witnessed the unfolding tragedy. It’s a visceral, immersive style of filmmaking, and it makes the events deeply affecting, with the viewer leaping between the points of view of the terrified and persecuted youths being held in the Motel. This style feels a little out of place when the film switches gears late in the piece to follow the legal proceedings against the perpetrators, but its use is so effective for the most part that this feels like a small price to pay.
It’s also this final part of the films that frustrated me while viewing, as it ultimately feels like it’s trying to be two different kinds of movie. For the most part, Boal’s screenplay burrows into a singular, noteworthy event in forensic detail, an approach that lends itself to a harrowing, immersive film, like ‘Captain Phillips’. On the other hand, the court proceedings that fill the third act (and result in precisely the gut-churning verdict that you suspect it might but pray it won’t) feel more like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ in reverse, and sap the narrative of the propulsive momentum that the Algiers Motel recreation generates. In this sequence, the film drags a little (perhaps inevitable with a runtime of almost two-and-a-half hours). This change, which includes a significant leap forward in time, feels detached to the events that we witness in the Motel, and the judicial results only intensify this feeling of numb spectatorship, as opposed to the angry participation that the Motel’s events inspire.
‘Detroit’ is a troubling and timely film. I’ve seen it called a masterpiece by other reviewers, and its American distributors appear set on making a tilt for the Oscars with the film; I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with the former, but I can certainly see some award nominations heading its way come the end of the year. As both a vital document of an important event in recent American history and a well-made and powerful piece of art, ‘Detroit’ succeeds, even if its flaws draw attention to themselves by all appearing together in the final scenes.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting