I’m going to start with something incredibly nitpicky, but I need to get it off my chest. I hate it when films are titled and promoted like they’re going to explore some huge event and then only focus on one tiny little piece of it. You see, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit isn’t about the 1967 Detroit riot, at least not really, but instead the majority of its runtime is spent on events that occurred at the Algiers Motel between civilians and a few racist police officers. This is perfectly fine, of course, as the story that is told is both compelling and infuriating (intentionally so), but that doesn’t excuse the lazy, misleading title. It’s as dumb as naming your film after terrorism incident and only referring to said incident in a handful of brief flashbacks over the course of the film’s nearly three-hour runtime…oh wait. I expect better from you, Mark Boal.
Titling issues aside, Boal really has produced a superb script as the backbone for Detroit, setting up the background atmosphere and tensions of the riot and slowly introducing the various, mostly compelling characters while spiraling toward their fateful meeting at the motel. As someone who had zero awareness of the riot until the 50th anniversary discussions this year, the tension at this point was toe-curling, my heart palpitating as if I was trapped in the room with the poor souls on screen. Like his previous work with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Boal also manages to form a more journalistic approach, keeping an objective and non-moralising of a perspective on the material, at least as much as is possible when the subject matter is blatant racism, murder, and police brutality. At the very least, it never feels as though the picture is preaching at you, but that the events are simply unfolding in front of you, allowing you to draw your own conclusions, even if it’s obvious what those conclusions should be.
This is also in part due to Bigelow’s quasi-documentarian style of filmmaking that she’s employed in her previous two films; if you’ve seen The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, then you know most of what to expect from Detroit‘s presentation. Shaky cameras courtesy of the master of the “craft,” Barry Ackroyd, and fidgety editing piece together the narrative, sufferers of motion sickness be damned. While this would usually be unspeakably appalling craftsmanship to me, Kathryn Bigelow and Paul Greengrass are the only two directors that I unwaveringly trust to be able to compose a compelling and lucid story with the method and properly utilise its strengths. Bigelow has finely tuned her ability to draw focus out of unfocused images, providing her audience with an unsettling fly-on-the-wall presence. I don’t particularly care to heap praise on the cinematography, as there isn’t really an inspiring single shot to be found in the film, but it’s very effective at what it sets out to accomplish.
However, there are a couple of twists with Detroit that caught me off guard. The film opens with a hand-painted animation of the history of the subjugation of African Americans, colourfully setting up the background for the rising racial tensions that incited the rioting. While the sequence is interesting in its own right and while the context is important for understanding the events as they unfold, it ultimately feels out of place, completely contrary to the tone and palette of the rest of the film, a ham-fisted attempt at artsiness wedged into a brutal film emphasising realism. Elsewhere, stock footage and photography of the actual riots are spliced in throughout, punctuating the different days of the turmoil. While it’s less offensive than usual here and offers some assistance to the aforementioned quasi-documentarian feel, the method is a huge pet peeve of mine (much bigger than silly titles). It’s usually done poorly or as a cheap attempt at tugging heartstrings, and it frustrates me to no end. Bigelow does manage to avoid most of the pitfalls here, but my annoyance still stands. If you’re going to make a documentary, make a documentary. If you’re going to make a drama, make a drama. Don’t mix the two unless you have very good reason, otherwise it’s just a distracting gimmick.
I mentioned early that most of the characters are particularly interesting, and while I think this is heavily owed to the tight script, the performances seal the deal. John Boyega serves his function as Melvin Dismukes, a black security officer who gets dragged into the incident in the motel. Algee Smith is excellent as the aspiring Motown singer Larry Reed, starting off bright and charismatic, his spirit slowly crushed over the course of the film; Jacob Latimore also excels as Larry’s manager, Fred Temple, who has an almost opposite character arc, moving from shy and timid to increasingly defiant by the film’s conclusion. The real standout performance for me, however, was Will Poulter as the bigoted and violent Officer Philip Krauss, a vicious and unnerving presence every time he’s on screen. Krauss could have easily had the absurdity of a pantomime villain, but Poulter brings an authenticity to the character that makes every thought and action believable and unnerving. It’s hard to conceive of a human being as despicable as Krauss, yet Poulter makes him not only conceivable but horrifying.
Detroit exists not really as a step forward for Bigelow, but that’s not for lack of trying. Her attempts at artistic expansion unfortunately fall a bit short while the film at the centre is still as tightly crafted as ever. It’s nowhere near as defining of a film as her Iraq war/War on Terror pictures, yet it echoes of an artist still near her peak performance, trying to determine where to navigate next. Detroit will arouse justifiably strong emotions from the crowds that will and should attend, even if it doesn’t linger hauntingly in the mind like the obsession-laced stories Bigelow told before it.