Returning from a five-year hiatus, director Kathryn Bigelow seems likely to trouble Academy again with a film that, unlike the ambiguously pro-torture Zero Dark Thirty, shows the real factors at play behind “enhanced interrogation”.
A hard-hitting depiction of racial animus in America, Detroit opens with an animated prologue that uses vivid, mural-style artwork – like the wall of some grand municipal station brought to life – to lay out the plight of African-Americans in the lead up to 1967.
On June 25th, 1967, in Detroit, Michigan, a routine police raid on a black speakeasy leads out a public outcry. Dozens of civilians are arrested, including a party celebrating the return of two GIs from Vietnam. and forced to wait for the Black Marias to take them away.
Shot in broad, loosely documentary style by frequent Paul Greengrass collaborator Barry Akroyd, who also previously worked with Bigelow on Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, these scenes bring out the warmth and frustration of what would become the first night of the 12th Street Riot. The escalation is sudden but subtle for it: a bottle is thrown; the security grate on a clothing store is forced, a window smashed, the storefront casually looted. Before too long the first petrol bomb is thrown.
By the end of the five-day riot, 43 people will be dead; 24 of them at the hands – or guns – of the police and National Guard, whose tanks, rolling along the thoroughfare, give the city the look of a war-zone. Detroit dramatises the fate of a few key individuals caught up in these events; specifically the so-called Algiers Motel Incident. Mark Boal’s screenplay scrupulously lays out who these characters are, there wants and dreams, which set them on the path to a tragic convergence.
There’s the soulful Larry Reed (Algee Smith in a remarkable feature debut), lead singer of Motown group The Dramatics, whose shot at becoming a star – performing after Martha and the Vandellas – is taken away when the concert hall is cleared out just moments before they’re due onstage. Set wandering with his unassuming best friend Fred (Jacob Lattimore), the two find their way to the Algiers Motel, where Larry sets his sights on getting Fred laid; possibly by Karen or Julianne (Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray), two Ohio girls playing at being cosmopolitan.
Instead, they find themselves in a room full with a bunch of restless employees, including pissed-off prankster Carl (Straight Outta Compton’s Jason Mitchell), who decides to fire a starter pistol out the window in the direction of the National Guard. Already jumpy about reports of snipers, they descend on the building in full force.
At this point, Detroit steadily shifts from a historical drama into horror-thriller territory as the motel occupants find themselves lined up in the downstairs corridor, hands to the wall, terrorised by three Detroit PD officers. The cops want to know who the shooter is and, unwilling to accept the truth – that only one of them, Carl’s friend, Aubrey (Nathan Davis Jr.), really knows what happened – set about brutally and pointlessly compelling them into “confessing” what they know.
What ensues is a one-act pre-murder mystery where the suspense comes not from whodunit, but in how many will be dead before the night is out. Out of their depth and having completely misjudged the situation, the cops seem determined to leave their mark. We well believe they may have switchblades enough to plant on every corpse.
The mundane beige wallpaper with its faded lilies become the backdrop to a monstrous abuse of power. With his having left the role of the monstrous clown Pennywise in the upcoming, eagerly anticipated IT due to scheduling conflicts, Detroit gives Will Poulter a chance to play a different, more socially troubling sort of villain.
As Phillip Krauss, seemingly a composite of several real-life officers, Poulter first seems reasonable, decent even, as he talks about wanting to make sure communities are not destroyed by those who live in them. Shortly after this, though, he leaps out of his patrol car in pursuit of a looter with a couple of bags of shopping and proceeds to blast him in the back with a shotgun in what seems to be his signature move.
It’s a tactic he defends to his superiors as a precautionary measure. Who knows what other crimes the looter might have committed? Why else would he run? Boyish and beetle-browed, Poulter sells Krauss’ un-questioning self-rationalisation as a man who, despite the evils of which he is capable, seems unaware of his own prejudice. He seems to consider it just part of a role he’s playing; part of the job even.
Krauss’ accomplices, the lank-haired Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and dead-eyed imbecilic Demens (Jack Traynor), are more outwardly repulsive – though Poulter does have his moments – but Krauss’ banality is somehow more terrifying; especially when that sardonic grin breaks through.
Incompetence and unchecked power make for deadly bedfellows, especially when the trio start playing what comes to be called “the death game”. It feels like no one is guaranteed to survive – not even the two pretty white girls whose presence in the motel, let alone in the room of a black man, stolid Vietnam vet Green (Anthony Mackie), is like a dog-whistle to the dangerously pathetic Flynn and Demens.
The proper authorities, who should reign these mad dogs in– such as the National Guard stationed outside – choose instead to walk away; rather than caught up in possible civil rights issues. Even the sympathetic Warrant Officers Roberts (Austin Hébert) defends the trio’s physical brutality and psychological torture as interrogation tactics.
One of the only mitigating factors if the presence of security guard Melvin Dismus (John Boyega), who, serving coffee to the National Guard as a show of good faith, joined them to investigate. The closest thing to a black figure of authority in this time and place, in his blue security guard uniform, Dismus offers what limited protection he can. Others are quick to dismiss him as an Uncle Tom, but Dismus is smart, not servile; and Boyega lends a sense of deep integrity to his pragmatism.
Pragmatism, however, will not necessarily save Dismus from the system of which he is not quite, can never be, a part. Detroit’s third act, in which the fallout of the night is dramatised, feels almost unnecessary – we know history has a horrible habit of compounding racial tragedy with legal injustice. The exact details could more efficiently have been recounted with an intertitle might, perhaps, provoke more outrage than the moral weariness these scenes evoke in a modern audience.
In including them Bigelow conscientiously opts for historical context over pure in-the-moment cinema; locating a redemptive quality in its character’s suffering that nevertheless might give some pause, even more so than the creative license the film takes during its second act.
Arguably the second great racial horror movie of 2017, after Get Out, Detroit makes up for in power what it lacks in subtlety. A few tonal missteps aside – a kind-hearted white cop wonders aloud of one survivor, “Who could do such a thing?” – this is powerful, if not quite incendiary film-making. It denies its audience easy catharsis in that, as I said in my review of Selma back in 2015, and as the recent death of Rashan Charles and resulting riots in Hackney demonstrate, the story is not over yet.
Expect Detroit to be troubling the Academy come Oscar season.