“Burn it down”
The title may be presumptuous enough to broadly call itself Detroit, but make no mistake that Kathryn Bigelow‘s latest film is very much about the Algiers Motel incident on the night of July 25th, 1967. Screenwriter Mark Boal allows for some prologue exposition before reaching that fateful evening—setting up the events that sparked the city’s five-day long 12th Street Riot—but nothing more. We witness the raid conducted on a club operating without a liquor license, watch the streets erupt with fury in response, and move between archival footage and reenactments to fully comprehend the fires and ruin wrought. This all proves table setting for the heinous, racially- and thus fear-motivated siege on a local hotel being used as refuge from the virtual police state that resulted.
The riots are shown objectively as much of the film is during its first three-quarters. We see the police brutality (and hear the hollow justifications) as well as the angry self-destruction through willful property damage and looting that followed. We accept the gray areas enough to question actions, but not motivations. To shake your head at a young black man stealing groceries is to acknowledge a systemic breakdown of law and order due to racism and segregation. To watch as a Detroit patrolman opens fire with his shotgun to maim him from behind, however, is to know monsters do wear badges. Two wrongs do not make a right no matter how self-satisfied one is in his amorality. And that specific officer (Will Poulter‘s Krauss) is only getting started.
From there everything surrounds the 25th whether we’re watching Milton Dismukes (John Boyega) get called to work security at his boss’ grocery store or The Dramatics (led by Algee Smith‘s Larry Reed) psyching themselves up before a potential career-making performance. We meet Larry’s best friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), a wise beyond his years teen whose moral support helps to calm his buddy’s nerves. There’s a National Guardsman (Will Bouvier) stationed in case any snipers are seen, his unit across the street from Dismukes’ post. Escalating activity soon closes the auditorium early before The Dramatics get their chance at glory, Larry and Fred flee to the Algiers, and their newfound acquaintance there (Jason Mitchell‘s Carl) earns some laughs shooting a starter pistol indoors. Then all hell breaks loose.
It only takes a couple flashes and the sounds of that prop gun to get the National Guard to take cover and call it in. Suddenly everyone knows the shots came from the Algiers and they all converge in record time to surround those inside. Along with Larry, Fred, and Carl are two white teenagers from Ohio (Hannah Murray‘s Julie and Kaitlyn Dever‘s Karen), a Vietnam veteran (Anthony Mackie), and a handful of other young black men. Unfortunately for them neither the National Guard, Dismukes, nor the State Police were first on the scene. That designation instead fell to Officer Krauss and his cronies Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole). This trio arrives with shotguns drawn, itching to discover who the shooter is by any means necessary.
What follows is a harrowing display of survival opposite a gross abuse of power. The night unfolds with bloody violence as Krauss and his men interrogate each scared kid one by one, screaming, shooting, and punching with a complete disregard of protocol. Tensions rise until things get so heated that those in a position to stop what is happening choose to recuse themselves from the situation rather than help. Control is lost as soon as the door is kicked in and every line that can be crossed is. Those familiar with the incident know how many will die (and perhaps who) while the rest watch in fear that it might be every single one of them. Youth is the common denominator as kids with guns terrorize kids without.
The incident unfolds as though in real-time, the players moving room to room for interrogation games and searches. We begin realizing just how helpless those caught in the crosshairs are and how self-serving if not cowardly those outside prove by comparison. Larry and Fred are in the wrong place at the wrong time—the former’s concert wardrobe already making him stick out like a sore thumb. Julie and Karen apparently forfeited their rights as human beings, their presence in a motel full of black men empowering Krauss to treat them like traitors. And if the trailers made it seem as though Poulter was out of his element as formidable authoritarian, he isn’t in full context. His Krauss is calculating, cognizant, and deluded into thinking he’s doing what’s right.
It’s a powerful display of real events constructed from first-person accounts and educated guesses. Bigelow traps us in that hotel with them, making it so the outside world is meaningless. These situations are often he said/he said ordeals, but this specific era and place doesn’t make that distinction a 50/50 coin flip. So we endure the tough choices these young kids have to make in order to not exacerbate their situation and we endure the criminal choices made by poorly trained and poorly disciplined cops wielding their racist beliefs as government-issued dogma. The suspense is real and the carnage visceral. We want someone to turn the tables and yet know it would be impossible to do so. Standing strong is as good as a bullet in the head.
As unforgettable as this showcase is, however, things do ultimately fall apart once objectivity moves into manipulation. When all is said and done, the final quarter of Detroit‘s runtime could have been delivered in text form because today’s world of Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter ensures we aren’t surprised by the all-white jury’s verdict on charges of police brutality and murder. Turning this gritty, in-your-face thriller into a courtroom drama severs the emotional bond we had with the film by providing commentary we don’t need spelled out. To show us what happens at the Algiers without ambiguity is to make visible what many in this country still staunchly deny. Dragging out the aftermath solely to portray black suffering and rage renders it hollow with “A-ha!” ambitions.
This film should be a way to speak about the present in terms of the past, not some grand thesis about where it began. The simple fact everything we see onscreen reminds us of today is pessimistic enough—we don’t need to relive the salt in the wound moment experienced two months ago with the acquittal of Philando Castile’s murderer. In this respect the film does less to educate or honor than it does to enrage and posit that things won’t ever change. While that may be true, I’m not certain the message does anything constructive when the pain and sorrow seen in theaters pales in comparison to what we witness on the nightly news. I didn’t think things could feel more futile and yet here we are.
courtesy of Annapurna Distribution