Detroit: A Film by Kathryn Bigelow
After a short animation sequence that gets us up to speed on the history that led to the 1967 Detroit riots, we get right into the specifics of the story as police raid a “blind pig,” essentially a bar without a liquor licence. It’s July 23rd, 1967, and this is the catalyst for the riot. After establishing some character and historical background, Detroit focuses on the killing of three African American men at the Algiers Hotel Annex on the night of July 25th, when police officers responded to shots fired at National Guard troops who had been called in to quell the riots. The movie is difficult to watch, for many reasons, but Kathryn Bigelow’s decision to shoot the film in a hyper-subjective manner is often perplexing, leading to an uneven film where much of the impact is lost.
The sound design, as wonderful as it is, gives us the first worrying indication that the film is going to be impressionistic, hyper-subjective. During the first riot scenes after the blind pig arrests, when we naturally have a chaos of voices, Bigelow focuses on a single person whose screams rise just above the others, but only temporarily, until another voice is focused on, at which time the first voice fades away and becomes, once again, a small part of the sea of angry voices. There’s also music, hardly noticeable at first, but it’s there, reminding the viewer that the movie isn’t totally couched in realism, though Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal do try to get close.
John Boyega, recently of Star Wars fame, is top-billed, though he doesn’t get a ton of screen time. Besides the obvious marketing opportunities, his top billing also makes sense because his character, Melvin Dismukes, based on a real security guard who was present at the Algiers Hotel Annex on the night of the shootings, is the heart of the movie. As a security guard, he also represents the soul of the law enforcement community, all of whom are morally bankrupt in some respect. Dismukes believes in what he does. He believes in law and order, following the rules, living an ethical life. But he’s no fool. He recognizes that he and every other black person in America is automatically at a disadvantage. He does what he can, which isn’t a lot, to save the lives of the young people at the annex. (They were all under thirty years old.) But there’s not a lot he can do if he wants to walk away with his own life.
Besides his security job, he also works in a factory. He’s essentially living the kind of life a conservative white American would approve of. And yet, he’s the first person to be taken in and interrogated by detectives, the first one to spend a night in jail. He does everything right and yet he’s still a black man in America, so none of that matters. Boyega is marvelous in his role, keeping things understated, always a look of worry and compassion in his eyes. He might not be the best actor in the film, but there’s something very genuine about his performance. Even when he’s quietly in the background, he’s a powerful force.
Bigelow’s mistake was to attempt to show all sides of the story, as if all sides mattered. Special care is taken to try to humanize most of the police officers involved that ended up killing three African American men and terrorizing nearly a dozen others, as well as two white women who were staying at the annex. I understand what Boal and Bigelow were trying to do. Humanizing the officers, seeing things from their perspective, makes us, and especially the white members of the audience, reflect on the possibility that, under the right circumstances, we might be the perpetrators of this kind of terrible violence. And while this is true enough, it feels like a mockery to refocus the movie, even for a minute, away from the victims to the police. After all, Detroit is based on a very real incident in which real people were terrorized and killed. Some of the victims are still alive fifty years later.
The story is compelling enough without all of that nonsense anyway. The terrifying scene inside the annex takes up the majority of the film. Sound design once again comes into play as the residents jump to the ground and cover their heads as the place is blanketed in automatic weapons fire. You can really feel the destruction caused by the bullets as you hear them rip through the walls at unimaginable speed. It’s the first time we understand very viscerally, at least in a very small way, what it must be like to suddenly and out of nowhere feel like your life could end at any moment. Later, as the residents are lined up against a wall, subjected to racial slurs and violence, the police officers play a “game” in which they take a man to another room and pretend to shoot them to death in order to extract a confession from the others. Of course, the man who fired the starter pistol is dead, so nobody has anything to confess. Imagine, then, thinking that others have already died and it’s a virtual certainty that you’ll be killed soon, too. Terrifying stuff, and it makes you wonder why Bigelow chose to focus on anything else.
Detroit, like many other timely historical dramas, is supposed to comment on events taking place in the present, asking us to examine why unarmed African Americans are still dying at the hands of police under questionable (at best) circumstances. That it’s from a white point of view might or might not affect the way people view the film, depending on what they bring to the movie. Does the lack of focus lead to a lack of empathy? I think so, although when the movie does focus on the victims, it’s pretty affecting stuff. This wasn’t the right movie for narrative or formal experimentation. The victims, alive and dead, deserved better.
Patrick King has had short stories, essays, and a novel published in various places online and in print. As P.S. King, he’s had two short film scripts produced.