‘Detroit’ Review: Director Kathryn Bigelow Captures the Ongoing War at Home
The easy way to describe Detroit is that even though the film is about events from July 25, 1967, it’s also clearly about events that have been in the headlines—police brutality, racial injustice, and the difficulty in (and perhaps impossibility of) resolving these tensions. And yet to simply say that Detroit is about “right now” is to miss its larger point that this conflict has been going on for centuries. It may be making headlines and blowing up social media these days, but it’s an issue we’ve refused to confront, and for white people it’s been far too easy to dismiss. Although the film is hard to watch as police officers cruelly assault black people, it demands to be seen, experienced, and endured rather than the tweet or the one-off news story we can quickly flip past.
After a brief and beautifully illustrated prologue explaining the great migration and white flight, we’re dropped into the beginning of the 1967 Detroit riots. However, rather than catalog the entirety of the riots and the various factors at play, the movie uses that as a springboard to get to the central story, which happens at the Algiers Motel. When Carl (Jason Mitchell) shoots a starter pistol out the window, local cops led by Patrolman Krauss (Will Poulter) and National Guard soldiers led by Warrant Officer Roberts (Austin Hébert) storm the house near the motel, bringing in Carl, his friends, as well as people who weren’t involved like friends Larry (Algee Smith) and Fred (Jacob Latimore) and young women Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) who were hanging out with recently returned Vietnam veteran Greene (Anthony Mackie). Local security guard Dismukes (John Boyega) comes along to try and diffuse the situation as much as possible, but he discovers that the cops are unrelenting in their cruelty and racism.
Director Kathryn Bigelow, who has recently created spins on the war movie with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, continues that trend with Detroit. Although history declares the event as a “riot”, Bigelow depicts as a conflict between two factions, with Detroit looking more like an occupied city rather than a thriving American metropolis. The conflict comes about because despite Detroit having an overwhelmingly black population, the police force is primarily white, and that force sees their job as keeping order at any cost. For Krauss, when he shoots a fleeing black suspect in the back, he makes excuses later. He doesn’t feel ashamed or guilty. He immediately fills in the blanks—“Oh, if he was running, he must have had something to hide.” It’s a theory of policing that says the only way to restore peace is through force, which is the same theory that exists in warzones.
While the warzone approach occupies the first act of the movie, once we get into the house near the Algiers and the cops are doing their interrogation is where the film gets even more disturbing. Some will argue that the second act goes on for too long, but that’s the point. If you think an hour in a movie is a tough, imagine that this is life for you. Imagine constantly being harassed by cops who don’t see you as human and who impose their twisted morality above legality. As one angry protester shouts later in the film, “This never would have happened if a bunch of white men had been discovered with black girls,” but because it’s black men with white girls, the situation escalates due to the cops’ racism.
Where some viewer might become exasperated is why no one tells the cops about the starter pistol. The cops constantly ask where’s the gun and who was shooting, and even though Carl’s friends are present and saw him fire the starter pistol out the window, no one says that. It may seem perplexing as to why no one admits this, but it’s a fairly ingenious storytelling device by Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. By forcing the audience to ask “Well why didn’t they just do this?” it forces the viewer to recognize their own prejudice and the questions that get asked every time police brutality comes up in the news. “Why did he run?” “Why didn’t he just follow the officer’s instructions?” “Why, with the benefit of hindsight and my race did they not do the things I would have done?”
In this way, Detroit takes on a more experiential approach than expected. Bigelow wants all viewers to feel the terror of black men as closely as possible even though we know that’s impossible for some audience members. It’s a tightrope walk between being able to empathize with the victims while simultaneously recognizing white privilege. White audiences have to feel the danger while also recognizing the safety that whiteness provides. White people also have to understand the limitations of our own viewership and own experience. At no point does Bigelow make Detroit something into where it feels like she, a white woman, is trying to be a “voice” for black people. Instead, it’s a story directed at white audiences because black audiences will likely find the story painfully familiar.
But I can’t know for sure. I’m eager to read the reviews of Detroit from black critics because I know the limits of my own experience and knowledge. I can sympathize and feel for the black characters and white women being tortured by the cops and the following (and sadly predictable) further injustice that follows, but at the end of the day, I’ve got white privilege. I don’t get pulled over for the color my skin. Cabs will stop to pick me up. There are things in Detroit that neither Bigelow nor I can ever relate to, and the film powerfully reminds us of limitations that are out of control or, as in the case with the starter pistol, the limitations we subconsciously set from our position of privilege.
Detroit is sure to get people talking, and it’s a conversation we should be having all the time, not just when there’s yet another story of a cop shooting an unarmed black man or another story of a different cop not being charged with the crime of shooting an unarmed black man. If Bigelow wanted to make a movie about Ferguson, she could have. But she chose this story to show that this history isn’t history. It happened, it’s happening, and it will continue to happen until we demand a different outcome.
Detroit opens in Los Angeles and New York July 28 and nationwide on August 4.