Dark, challenging ‘Detroit’ may be controversial without purpose

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 10/17/17 12:00am

I watched “Detroit” over a week ago, and I’m still not quite sure what to say. It is, without a doubt, the hardest film I’ve ever had to review. In retrospect, this is not a shock — director Kathryn Bigelow has shown a steadfast willingness to tackle controversial topics in her previous two films, “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Similarly, “Detroit” is based on the Algiers Motel Incident, although the film acknowledges that Mark Boal’s tense screenplay takes certain factual liberties due to conflicting or incomplete testimonies about what actually occurred in the 1967 incident of police brutality against three black teenagers. Thus, the plot details described in this review will be based purely on the events as the film describes them; if you want to know more about the real-life incident, I highly recommend looking it up. 

In July 1967, rising racial tensions in Detroit boiled over when the majority white police force raided an unlicensed club that was celebrating the return of two black Vietnam War veterans. Things eventually spiraled out of control and led to the 12th Street Riot, turning Detroit into something of a war zone. In the midst of the riot, the police and members of the National Guard mistook the firing of a starter pistol with sniper fire coming from the Algiers Motel. They rounded up patrons of the motel, all black men except for two white women, and proceeded to brutally interrogate and torture them under the guise of wanting to ascertain the identity of the “sniper.” The night ended in three deaths, yet none of the officers were ever convicted. 

I’m not the first person to point out that the film’s biggest problem is the way it always keeps itself at an arm’s length from its characters. John Boyega ostensibly plays the lead, Melvin Dismukes, a black security guard who serves as a de facto mediator between the police and the victims. Yet it wasn’t until the film started to depict the aftermath of the incident that I felt like I was given a chance to really know Dismukes. The same can be said for all of the characters, black, white or otherwise; effective characterization often doesn’t arise until the final act. And that’s a problem because when the film depicts the incident, which takes up the majority of the runtime, it is a brutal, grueling and deeply unpleasant experience — as it should be. But because we don’t know these characters nearly as well as we might like to, the film walks uncomfortably close to the line between showing the suffering of black individuals to make a moral point and showing the suffering of black individuals for the sake of depicting suffering. The former is already questionable, and the latter is entirely unacceptable. What’s odd is that Bigelow has traditionally been excellent at getting us inside the minds of her characters. It’s almost as if she too was wary of this controversial subject matter and thus opted to distance herself from the story she was trying to tell.   

All that being said, the directing on a purely technical level is a marvel. Bigelow is undoubtedly one of the finest directors working today; her work is visceral and intense in a way that is truly difficult to stomach. Too often films attempt to downplay our atrocities, past and present, yet Bigelow never falls prey to the glossy Hollywood sheen that could have ruined “Detroit.” Controversial as this film may be, I think Bigelow could end up getting nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, a decision I wouldn’t dispute.

Likewise, all of the actors do an excellent job, making the most of parts that are occasionally underwritten. Boyega is regularly sidelined, but his presence helps ground the story. In fact, the star might be Will Poulter as the seemingly sociopathic police officer Philip Krauss. I’m not sure if Krauss is terrifying because Poulter is so good or because he so closely resembles some of the people that too often dominate our daily news, but either way he’s chilling. The real scene-stealer, though, is Algee Smith as Larry Reed, a singer with a dream who is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Reed is the only character that I felt I really got to know from the beginning, and that’s largely thanks to Smith’s heartfelt performance. 

“Detroit” may be about a tragic historical event in the 1960s, but it should come as no shock that in the era of Black Lives Matter and “take a knee,” it feels painfully relevant. Unsurprisingly, the film has also reignited the debate about white artists, in this case Bigelow and Boal, depicting true events that so prominently feature the pain of black individuals. Given that I am white, I freely acknowledge this is a thorny topic that I do not feel entirely comfortable wading into. Is it a good film? I don’t think I have a satisfactory answer to that question. It is an effective and well-made film with admirable intent. But is it doing more good or more harm in these charged times? Frankly, I don’t think that’s for me to decree, but instead something each viewer should decide on his or her own. This might be one of those unique cases where the discussion after the film is more important than the film itself. And that’s got to be worth something.