John Boyega as Dismukes (Photo by Francois Duhamel, © 2017, Annapurna Pictures, IMDB)

Kathryn Bigelow’s Intense ‘Detroit’ Finds a Glimmer of Hope Amidst the Hopelessness

This is no one's neighborhood. Detroit doesn’t help anyone to feel at home, least of all viewers.

“By now, the love-potion stuff has run its course, diffused into little more than an advertising trope, but the events in Detroit are hard evidence of a cultural crisis that remains unresolved, of two Americas that still don’t know quite how to deal with each other.” — Mark Boal
“I hear they turning downtown to the front line.
It’s something like the same place but it ain’t safe.
They took it from the human race to a tank chase.
The devil feeding off hate so he gain weight.”
“It Ain’t Fair”, The Roots featuring Bilal

“Change doesn’t happen overnight. Change is coming.” It’s 23 July 1967, now known as the first day of the 12th Street Riot, and 38-year-old John Conyers (Laz Alonso) is addressing residents with a bullhorn. Riled by repeated clashes with police, they’re in the streets, angry and loud. “Settle down,” he urges, because it doesn’t make sense to be “burning down your own neighborhood.”

It’s a familiar logic, an appeal to hope and connectedness. But as earnest as Conyers appears, he’s met with resistance (“Bring Stokely Carmichael!”) and he’s missing another logic, the one imposed by poverty, racism, and oppression that Detroit goes on to illustrate. The very next frames — handheld, grainy — show buildings on fire, vehicles abandoned, and citizens throwing rocks at firemen. The section titled Day 3 begins with news footage of Governor George Romney explaining, “There were some civil rights overtones, but primarily this is a case of lawlessness and hoodlumism.” Reporters describe the “war” as you see low angles of National Guard vehicles, broken storefront glass, cops cruising in the dark and taking aim at shadows. One of them is a little girl, looking out her window. You see the threat on the street below, she doesn’t.

This is no one’s neighborhood. Detroit doesn’t help anyone to feel at home, least of all viewers. The primary story is based on the Algiers Motel murders: during the rebellion, on 25 July, three young black men were tortured and killed by three white police officers who were reportedly playing something they called “the death game” (pretending to kill suspects in order to get them to confess to crimes). The police also abused multiple other guests, who testified at their trial, where they were found not guilty by an all-white jury. The movie works against expectations, leaving out conventional heroes and narrative through-lines, instead offering pieces of experiences and memories, drawn from transcripts and interviews, a structure featuring gaps by definition.

Some of these gaps are obvious: general contexts are conveyed by TV reports or headlines (“There is no American right to loot stores,” Lyndon Johnson declares, “That is crime”), and a few survivors’ stories are hinted at in brief text epilogues and newspaper photos. And you don’t see much background for any character, including Melvin (John Boyega), a security guard at a convenience store, Larry (Algee Smith), singer with the Dramatics, or Krauss (Will Poulter), the officer who commits most of the violence that night when their lives intersect.

More of the gaps are haunting, and they infuse this movie with some generic horror elements. The camera doesn’t show full faces when Krauss instructs victims to stand against the lobby wall, when they’re afraid to turn around or look at each other. You do see Vietnam War veteran Robert Greene’s (Anthony Mackie) bloody face when he’s slammed to the floor, or called a pimp and worse because the cops find him in his motel room playing cards with two white girls, Juli (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). When Krauss and his partners, Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole), start pulling victims into separate rooms to abuse them, extracting screams and fearful noises, the door shuts on us and the other hostages, until it takes us inside, where we can see the “death game” in process, in which the officer shoots his gun at the floor, then warns the victim to remain silent, leaving those outside to assume he’s dead and fear for their own lives. In a more conventional horror film, what you don’t see is more frightening than what you do see. Here, both are monstrous.

Anthony Mackie as Greene(Photo by Francois Duhamel, © 2017, Annapurna Pictures, IMDB)

Detroit‘s horror movie references raise the specter of Get Out. Both films offer instruction, showing that the racism experienced daily by a broad swath of the US population is an experience another swath gives itself license to ignore (for one egregious example, check Dan Gilbert’s banner, erected and removed within hours after protests: “See Detroit Like We Do”). This movie’s focus on the 11 hours at the Algiers doesn’t expose racism as deviance as much as it displays its patterns. Like the other two movies in Bigelow and Boal’s war film trilogy Detroit lurches occasionally, from journalism to sensationalism, from personal experiences to cultural critique. Less invested in any particular character than The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, the new film poses a compelling challenge to that framework as a way to interrogate systems. Its focus on racism, the driving force of this war (as it is of most wars) presents it as a pathology and a system, alive in a past that is hardly over.

This much is laid out in Detroit‘s opening sequence, an animated history of the Great Migration, based on images by Jacob Lawrence and written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It’s a lesson for people who might have missed it in school, but it’s not surprising for anyone who’s lived its ongoing repercussions. The sequence closes by asserting Detroit‘s propulsive premise, that with all the turmoil the Great Migration generated and all the racism it exposed beyond the South, “Change was inevitable.”

This premise has produced art and politics, desire and fear. The film shows reasons for wanting change, why John Conyers echoes Sam Cooke’s lyrics and why men like Melvin and Larry work as hard as they do, to escape their circumstances, to live freely. But still, Detroit cautions you to worry, to anticipate that their efforts won’t be rewarded, that they’re about to be swallowed by diabolical forces. These forces are not “the riots”, but instead, they’re embodied by Krauss, whose own trajectory toward the Algiers is mapped from the start of the film, when he shoots a young looter in the back and then talks his way out of that trouble with his superior. “They’re destroying the city,” Krauss deflects when questioned, “And we’re facilitating that by the message we’re sending.”

What makes Krauss’ awfulness so awful is he’s enabled by his universe: the scary body-snatching community in Get Out is stretched across the city, the state, and the nation. The National Guardsmen and state cops who arrive at the Algiers (following reports of a sniper in the building) see what’s going on and decide to leave the scene rather than intervening, in an effort to avoid “civil rights stuff”. (Even when a nice white police officer helps Larry during his escape from the motel, by that time you’re likely to share Larry’s distrust of anyone white.) Melvin, a decent guy trying to survive, is unable to stop the cruelty, as much as he tries (and he’s rewarded for his efforts by being lumped in with the culprits at trial). And the jury trial leads to the same result as today’s trials of police officers caught on video lead, to acquittals.

All this lack of change suggests that hoping for it is futile. Detroit is not easy. But its refusal to reconcile what’s happening with more familiar, more appealing fictions may be another means to hope.

RATING 8 / 10