Over the past couple years we’ve seen an increased tension among police and minority communities, with communities taking stands against an escalation of police violence that has led to a number of controversial deaths. It’s been a revival of sort of the kind of societal tension that was present in the turbulent era of the late ‘60s. Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and her frequent collaborator Mark Boal return to the screen with their haunting depiction of the riots that took place in Detroit during the summer of 1967 with Detroit. It’s a brutal, visceral work of filmmaking that is extremely difficult to watch with its unflinching portrayal of racially motivated police brutality. Detroit is bound to be another controversial from Bigelow and Boal, but one that is vital and relevant to the ongoing political debate about inherent racism in our society and the use of force by police officers.
The film opens with a police raid that sparked the riots that would run through a few days in the summer of 1967. An illegal nightclub is raided before the watchful eyes of the neighborhood, the onlooking citizens outraged. From there, the film takes a chaotic approach to its setup, following all sorts of characters in various situations. Then Detroit starts to settle in on its various threads that will coalesce. We’re introduced to a trio of cops patrolling chaotic streets, Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O’Toole), and Demens (Jack Reynor), with Krauss shooting a looter in the back, an action that will have internally investigate for homicide even though he’s allowed to remain on duty.
Elsewhere, Dismukes (John Boyega) takes his position at a local grocery store where he’ll work as a security guard all night. Not far away, the Algiers Hotel has a bit of a party going on as the city crumbles with the National Guard and the police patrolling the burning streets. The lead singer of the aspiring group The Dramatics, Larry (Algee Smith) and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) rent a room at the rowdy hotel, where they’re quickly introduced to two young white women staying there, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). When one resident of the hotel decides to give the patrolling cops a scare with a starter’s pistol, it unleashes all sorts of hell when the fearful and enraged police enter the building in search of a sniper’s rifle that isn’t there.
The ugliness and brutality of the events within Detroit are hard to stomach, as each excessive blow is seemingly felt by the audience. The depiction of these particular police officers is sure to raise some controversy for anyone who has ever uttered the phrase “Blue Lives Matter.” Bigelow and Boal aren’t pulling any punches in displaying the horrific aspects of racism within the Detroit Police Department in this shameful chapter in American history. The indifference of the National Guard and Michigan State Police to the escalating events of violent injustice is loathsome to behold, and stirs all sorts of rage within the viewer. That rage never subsides and only reaches its apex when it comes to the trial of the officers involved. All the events of Detroit build into a scathing cinematic indictment of the American criminal justice system and a society that doesn’t value the lives of black Americans.
Because there are so many characters involved in Detroit, the script by Mark Boal doesn’t always give each of the characters an equal level of depth, sometimes to the film’s detriment. Algee Smith’s Larry is a character that stands out because of the depth afforded to the character. Even before he’s being brutalized, we feel the pain of the man as he stands on a stage ready to perform and the event is called off because of the riots. There’s a pained look in his eyes as looks out to an empty auditorium knowing that his dream may never be realized. However, the film really underserves Boyega’s Dismukes and fails to give us a better understanding of his inaction during the horrible siege. Much in the same vein of Boyega’s Dismukes is Anthony Mackie’s Greene, a soldier recently discharged from the Army. These characters could’ve provided valuable insight into the institutional failure that allowed this to occur but Bigelow really places the emphasis on the visceral brutality.
Detroit is a gut-punch of a movie, one that pulls you in to the ugliness lying beneath the American id. It’s not easy to sit through and watch Kathryn Bigelow’s unflinching style at the horrific, ghastly images of black men being brutalized with impunity by those charged with protecting them. That unflinching portrayal will put a lot of people off of Detroit. People on both sides of the political aisle will have trouble digesting the ugly violence at the heart of the film, and both sides will be unsatisfied with the results. Confronting the horrible aspects of nation’s complicated history and Kathryn Bigelow’s intensity doesn’t allow you to look away even when your instincts are pulling your eyes away. Detroit isn’t a pretty or easy story to view, but it’s powerful and vital in the modern context of an ongoing debate surrounding how police serve their communities.