The illustrated mosaic that opens Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit swiftly details the impossible situation that African-American men and women endured following the Civil War. The ensuing Great Migration that prompted the dispersal of a southern black population to largely urban northern enclaves would in itself spur a white suburban migration that generated a wealth of sociopolitical consequences, ranging from inadequate (read: terrible) housing and public education to growing hostilities between a predominately white police force and its black constituents. Despite narratives preceding the Detroit riots of 1967 that described the city as a beacon of racial harmony, it was fractured in faux-reform that failed its most vulnerable citizens time and again. This powder keg milieu served to describe a great deal of urban cities of the 1960s, and it’s in Detroit where this confluence of disenfranchising factors would come to a head.
Detroit is an exercise in establishing mood. Bigelow, renowned for the clinical severity that she displayed in films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, takes a more textured approach with her new film. Alongside cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, she imbues the city of Detroit with a kind of candlelit terror all while amplifying the hostilities between its citizens and police. For much of its opening act, we’re not so much introduced to individual characters as we are thrust into cataclysm, predicated on a police raid of a late-night party in one of the city’s slums. The ensuing riot would prove to be too much for local police to handle as Bigelow weaves archival footage to demonstrate the national response to the crisis. Marking the passage of time with text illustrating the day, Bigelow and writer Mark Boal settle on an event that occurs during the middle of the riot, centralized at the Algiers Motel, that serves as a caustic reminder that a half century later and we’re still not learning from out past.
As we enter day three of the riot, we’re introduced to the various characters that will all converge at the seedy motel. Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) is first introduced wielding a shotgun as he attempts to take down a black man stealing groceries. The suspect, defenseless and fleeing with his back to police, miraculously escapes as he crawls for cover underneath an automobile, left to bleed out. His death would prompt Detroit police to consider murder charges against Krauss, though he remains on active duty during the riots in what’s an all too familiar reminder of the mind-melting logic of the fraternal order of police. Elsewhere, we’re introduced to Melvin (John Boyega), a working class and morally upright citizen working one of two jobs as a security guard. He demonstrates the kind of citizenry that rejects the violence of the riots in itself, ascribing to a compliant role that ultimately damns him; being referred to as “Uncle Tom” is not entirely without merit. And finally we have Larry (Algee Smith), a singer for a Detroit soul group, and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore). With a promising gig cancelled, the two take refuge at the Algiers, meeting with two white women and their acquaintances as they sit out the night unable to make it back home.
The Algiers incident would see Krauss, his cadre of Detroit officers, the Michigan National Guard, and Melvin respond to what was perceived as sniper fire originating from the motel. An investigation of the premises would not yield any sort of weapon – the source of the gunfire apparently coming from a toy gun – yet Krauss would violently attempt to cajole a confession out of the motel’s largely black clientele. Bigelow frames the subsequent interrogation in frequent close-up, with Fred, Larry, and the other victims lined-up against a wall adjacent to a room with a dead body. The terror as each member of the line-up is brutally beaten and then taken to a room to be killed is, as you can imagine, unimaginable. Bigelow has never strayed from exposing the kind of violent tendencies that an authority has over their subjects, but in Detroit she truly tests the limits of our capacity to endure suffering as a purely vicarious exercise. Given that Krauss, earlier in the film, looks over the rioted ruins of Detroit and conveys his disgust that this is America, we too oversee his actions and those of authority as illustrating that this too is America.
Yet I’m left to consider the depths of Bigelow and Boal’s polemic. Whereas The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty offered a frustrating but nevertheless illuminating discussion on the political whys and whences of their subjects, Detroit is far more blunt and gives little room for re or misinterpretation. Part of it comes from the thinness of its characters and particularly from Will Poulter’s performance, which is keyed to a broad tempo. It’s affecting, to be certain, but whereas Bigelow and Boal’s previous collaborations found urgency in a more loosely constructed vignette structure, Detroit is bookended by two rather lucid and ephemeral acts with a narratively-driven and at times pedagogic endurance test settling in the middle. Detroit is at its most persuasive when it allows its images to convey its most biting criticisms - whether it be the sight of a girl peering through the blinds of her window to see armored vehicles or the frosted breath of a man as he plugs a bullet hole in his window with a fabric. Detroit’s most vivid statements are those left unspoken.