As a child, you are told that the police are there to protect you. If ever you should find yourself in a sticky situation, calling the police is the safest option as there is always an obvious line between the good guys and the bad guys. Upon closer examination however, this isn’t as true as one might hope. As part of the civil rights movement, blacks demanded justice in reaction to incidences of police brutality targeted upon members of their race. Many whites turned a blind eye as experience told them that only the guilty fear the police or are arrested. When police brutality began spilling into the public eye and into the suburbs- their suburbs- deniers were finally exposed to the reality of police brutality.
In the fifty years since the 12th Street riot and in light of events in recent years, the viewpoint that police are not to be trusted has not disappeared. Riots in response to police brutality still happen. Innocents are still slaughtered by prejudiced and violent psychopaths in police uniforms. Helpless and frightened, victims in Detroit are just a few of the many that police have lashed out against without provocation. When it comes to a bad cop, they will opt to “protect and serve” themselves first no matter how innocent those they interact with may be. Over the course of a near two and a half hours, Detroit brilliantly depicts this as black men and white women are violently tortured by white and black cops alike, all the while other officers extend a helping hand in the midst of the darkness. It is a surprisingly balanced and reasonable approach to such a hotly contested issue, yet it never shies away from showing the truth in every bloody detail.
Chilling in its display, Detroit often plays out like a horror film. With director Kathryn Bigelow slowly building tension and crafting scenes, it is obvious that tensions are high from the very beginning. Though the riot kicks off after the opening raid on an after-hours club, tensions are high even in that scene. By perfectly setting the stage for the rest of the film, Bigelow shows the foundation of the war zone. Neither side trusts each other and both are all too willing to escalate the situation beyond repair. While perhaps some of the backstory on the singing group is a bit excessive, the film refuses to skip over details. Every bit is deemed important as it establishes the innocence of the men and women in the Motel, while also showing other deaths already caused by the cops and why the police are so hot under the collar. To anybody even casually watching the film, the anger of the men in the Motel and the tired frustration of the cops can be felt in its entirety. By the time Bigelow finally allows the action to take place, her slow atmospheric build-up has left the audience falling off of the edge of their seats just waiting to watch the horror that will unfold on the fateful night.
Once the events in the motel reach their conclusion, however, the film somehow increases the horror even further. If watching people systematically and remorselessly killed in spite of their innocence is not horrifying enough, Bigelow reveals a deeper horror. Not only are they killed, but their murderers can get away with it with either minimal punishment or no punishment at all. As a timely social issue film, Detroit not only shows just how little has changed, but brings to light just horrifying the results of the trials are in context. It is the intentional shooting of an unarmed civilian with no evidence supporting their assumed guilt. It is murder derived out of a misunderstanding and chaos that has deadly results and no repercussions to the survivors. It is the kind of horror that is a bit more subtle and less obvious than the bloody psychological and physical torture endured by those in the Motel, but it is just as horrifying and relies far more on subtle direction from Bigelow in order to be felt properly. The slow unraveling of the case, the ominous appearance of the Attorney (John Krasinski) as he easily gets the men acquitted, and the after effects of it all make it somehow even more traumatic to watch than the violence. On the surface, carnage is distressing and terrifying. Yet in the pervasive nature of this institutionalized sanctioning of police officers to kill anybody they deem to pose a threat – with the excellent touch of all the cops in the crowd cheering on the not guilty verdicts – Bigelow shows that this is not just an isolated incident. The true horror is not just what happened in the motel. It is in the fact that it could happen anywhere at any time and nothing will happen to those who commit the atrocities.
Utilizing handheld camera and unsteady camera movements from the very beginning of the film, Bigelow makes Detroit a truly intimate experience. As she builds tension and a haunting atmosphere, this intimate approach is all the more jarring and horrifying. This somewhat cinema vérité style has the impact of peeling back the distance between us and what the camera shows. It makes the events transcend the medium in which they are depicted, becoming instead the realization of real life horror and simulating the feeling of actually being there. In the home, we feel an odd sense of claustrophobia. We feel similarly on edge and traumatized as the cops work their way through the men and women in the room. The outrage of watching the National Guard and State Police flee the scene to avoid civil rights lawsuits and watching the men be acquitted feels intimate and personal in nature. The riots and looting are violent, in-your-face, and terrifying. Just as we feel anger towards the cops, we feel anger towards those who use atrocities committed by the cops as an excuse to steal. Watching it right in front of our eyes with such personal camera work makes it feel like something we could reach and try to stop, but are left in a position where we are entirely helpless. Bigelow’s camera work makes us empathize with these struggles through a simulated shared experience.
Yet, no matter how brilliantly Bigelow infuses tension into the film, nothing in the film compares to Will Poulter’s acting. From the second we meet his Philip Krauss character, we despise the man. Not because he is a cop, but because he is one of the bad ones. Cruising around in his police car and complaining about blacks, it is obvious that Krauss is our antagonist. Chasing down an innocent guy buying groceries and shooting him in the back with a shotgun hardly helps the situation. The fact he was allowed to continue his shift at all is beyond appalling, but it is the perfect recipe for disaster. He already has nothing to lose with murder charges hanging over him by the time he gets to the Algiers Motel. What is the issue with a few more dead bodies? Magnetic and show-stopping brilliant as this unhinged cop, Poulter’s performance is sadistic and commanding. His screen presence is unlike any of his previous work as an actor. He commands attention and seems to take some perverse pleasure from making people cry out for help. While Krauss’s vile character certainly contributes a lot to what makes Poulter’s performance so brilliant, he more than lives up to Mark Boal’s strong writing. Poulter’s acting is perhaps the best supporting performance of the year thus far.
As security guard Melvin Dismukes, John Boyega is also quite strong here with a performance that could have certainly came from Denzel Washington a decade ago. A man stunned to see the injustice that occurs before him, he tries to be the link between the cops and the black men they are torturing but is in no position to do so due to the color of his skin. If he becomes too involved, white officers will not hesitate to pin everything on him. Though he tries to help, he is forced to keep his distance. Charismatic and with a nervous yet cool energy about him, Boyega solidifies his claim as a star in the making. While Dismukes is not in enough of this film to really let Boyega steal the show, it is a performance that hints at great things to come.
At 143 minutes, Detroit is definitely too long. Some of this can be contributed to the build-up to the events and the events in the motel themselves, but Bigelow’s refusal to spare us of any details in the beginning works to perfection. We get the lay of the land, connect to the characters, and feel the injustice with some depth behind these events beyond just bloody carnage. It is what comes after that hamstrings the film. Unfortunately, for a strictly narrative purpose, it all makes sense. Including backstories of people such as Larry Cleveland Reed (Algee Smith), a singer for The Dramatics, makes it necessary to show his aftermath as a church singer as a means of completing his narrative arc. It is unfortunate, but a necessary evil as it just makes the closing of the film drag on for far too long. Detroit’s depiction of Larry as a hopeful Motown singer who instead becomes a church singer because he does not want to perform for white people is tragic with echoes of American History X in how it shows the long-lasting impact of prejudice. However, combined with the extensively detailed picture painted in the courtroom, it just makes the film an exhausting and far too comprehensive work. It is the kind of film that seems to have multiple endings – the black-and-white photos of the bodies coming out of the home, the end of the trial, and then the church job for Larry – with each one diminishing in impact from the previous. For a film so brilliantly focused on its singular night to begin with, Detroit becomes bogged down in the details and disregards the experiential quality initially conjured.
Equal parts thrilling and chilling, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is another edge-of-your-seat thrill ride from the most well-renowned female director working in Hollywood today. Painting a true-to-life picture with no side truly innocent, Bigelow’s Detroit is not the preachy anti-white film so many with prejudice in their hearts will claim. It shows blacks loot and burn for no reason. It shows whites kill with vengeance. It shows bad black cops and good white cops. It shows black and white people who are innocent but caught up in the riots. It shows black and white people who are guilty and only want to stir things up. For all of its potential tripping points, Detroit never loses focuses that painting either side as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ is short-sighted and overly simplistic. Although the film demonstrates restraint in depicting acts of violence in the motel, it shows enough for audiences to understand that what happened in the Algiers Motel was hell on Earth for those up against the wall and, unfortunately, an experience that altogether far too many people know.