There are certain words a movie like Detroit predictably brings to mind: visceral, angry, shocking, important. But they don’t really tell you anything. What I will say is this: if you watch this film and you are not angry or in tears as the credits roll, you weren’t watching.
Katherine Bigelow directed this. People have asked her if she, a white woman, is the appropriate director to tell this story of racist brutality, and her reply is a diplomatic one on the lines of “probably not, but I’m the one who has the opportunity and it’s important this story is told.” True, an African American director would have brought something different to the tale. I want to see that take, too. But I personally was excited to see KB bring her talents to this subject. She is the only director I know of who can bring an audience into a villain’s point of view so intensely that we empathise even as we recoil. She is the perfect director to tell this story to a white, or non-American audience.
KB likes to take her audience directly into the action. Here there is a brief, animated history of the “Great Migration” of the descendants of freed slaves from the south to the industrial north of America and the segregation in cities that resulted. This ends by telling us that change was inevitable. We then visit a black speakeasy in Detroit – an illegal bar – raided by the police. This appears to be the flashpoint for the riot. There is little attempt to draw a cause-and-effect line, though: on one side of the street white police bundle black patrons into paddy-wagons (sorry, I don’t know what Americans call them) and on the other side unrelated black peoples start smashing window and robbing stores. I can’t decide if that’s KB’s first step in showing her audience – me! – their latent racism or a misstep in storytelling because of the minimal context. Because huge riots always come out of context; it’s not that long since something similar happened in the U.K. and I remember it vividly. It’s easy to negatively judge the rioters when all we see is wanton destruction and theft.
We are guided quickly through the first days of the riot, meeting some of the key players along the way. A police officer shoots at a man he believes is a fleeing looter; the man later dies but the officer is allowed to remain on duty pending charges: clearly the police need every man. Another cop talks with his colleagues about how the police have failed the black community, but his words seem ripped from headlines and he has nothing suggest as a fix. A black politician begs for calm. There is talk of snipers taking shots at police. A state of emergency is declared and the National Guard deployed. In a shocking moment, a national guardsman mistakes a girl, peering through a darkened window for a sniper and opens fire. Tensions couldn’t get much higher.
An all-black a Capella group wait tensely for their turn on stage. They hope to get a record contract out of the show. Just as their act is announced, police order the theatre closed and the patrons to head home: a curfew has been imposed. The band are frustrated; one lad takes his place anyway, singing to the empty theatre before they leave. But they can’t get home, the streets are burning. They take refuge in the nearby Algiers Motel. There we meet others: a couple of girls visiting from Ohio, angry black dude Carl, and Greene, a Vietnam veteran. Across the street, security guard Dismukes is already exhausted after working a double shift at his other job, and offers the National Guard coffee, hoping th gesture will increase his odds of living through the night.
The rest is a downward spiral of mistakes, brutal violence and hatred. The end of the movie makes it clear that exactly what happened in the motel can never be known, but the film has attempted a reconstruction based on official reports and eyewitness testimony. It would have been easy to exaggerate what happened, and it would still have been believable, but while it’s brutal and hard to watch I found this part of the film impressively restrained. There is a lot of foul language, including regular use of the N-word, and it’s clear that the police finding two white girls in the company of a black man triggered the worst of the violence, but I have seen worse displays of racism on film. The victims are not 100% blameless, either: someone did fire that stupid starting pistol at the cops and no one tries to tell them that’s what happened. (Would that have helped? Unlikely. But it still struck me as odd that no one who had seen that non-gun mentioned it when interrogated.)
And here is where Bigelow’s genius as a director shines though. Because as horrible as those cops are, there is a moment when it’s hard not to see the night from their perspective. That moment is all it takes: as a watcher, I now feel complicit in what’s happening because I have been forced to ask myself what would I do? Even if I am sure I would do better, Bigelow has made me ask, made me doubt. A second is enough. The worst part is watching how the rule of law protects itself even as it breaks down: first the State Police and later the National Guard carefully decline to notice what is happening, ceding jurisdiction to the local police.
A young man, beaten and terrified, flees the hotel and runs into the arms of more police. A terror turns to relief when this cop treats him with compassion and we dare to think that the worst is over.
A lesser filmmaker would have ended it there, but Bigelow makes us sit through the aftermath, watch the wheels of justice turn, and fail. Watch the effect on the survivors, see that a moment of hope means little when the whole system is stacked against the victims. See how people pick up their lives and move on…and how some simply cannot.
The trailers make John Boyega the star of this film, and I don’t mean to suggest there’s anything less than stellar in his performance. But it was Algee Smith as Larry who brought me to tears at the end, traumatised, crushed by guilt, struggling to explain to his friends that his whole world has changed.
Detroit is a powerful film, and it’s one the world needs to see, and talk about, right now. In my country, too: don’t pretend it couldn’t happen here. It’s up to all of us to make sure it doesn’t.