Kathryn Bigelow (2017)
In July of 2016, a black man named Philando Castile, driving with his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a suburb of St. Paul, was pulled over because his brake light was out. Asked for his license and registration, Castile informed the officer that he was carrying a gun. Then, while reaching for his license, he was shot several times and killed by the officer. There were videorecordings of the shooting and its aftermath. Despite the video evidence, the officer was acquitted of second-degree murder in the slaying.
African Americans are two and a half times more likely to be killed by police as white Americans, and are five times more likely to be unarmed when they are shot. In the Minneapolis area, however, it has taken the recent shooting of an unarmed white woman, Justine Damond, by a black officer to get a majority of people calling for an investigation into police training and culture.
Into this contemporary controversy, Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit has been dropped. The film, written by Bigelow’s regular collaborator Mark Boel (who also wrote the screenplays for her acclaimed films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) is set during the race riots in Detroit in 1967, which ended with 1,100 people injured, 7,000 arrested and 43 killed. The film, which premiered in its title city on July 25—fifty years to the day from the riots, which occurred July 23-26, focuses on the infamous brutalities (one might be inclined to say the atrocities) inflicted on a group of mostly black residents of the Algiers Motel, resulting in the deaths of three black men at the hands of three white Detroit police officers.
The film begins with a strangely out of place animated history of black Americans chronicling in thin outline the emancipation of slaves, the great migration to the north, white flight to the suburbs, and ghettoizing of blacks in overcrowded central cities, resulting in broiling tensions and, in Detroit by 1967, a powder keg whose explosion is virtually inevitable. This background is supposed to give context to the film’s content, one assumes, but in its oversimplification and ignoring of important things like, for instance, the entire civil rights movement to that point, as well as the Watts riots of 1965 and the Newark riots just two weeks earlier, it sheds more heat than light, and I can’t help but feel that the film would have been better without it.
The story itself opens with a police raid on an unlicensed bar in a black neighborhood on the night of July 23. As police arrest patrons of this “private party,” a neighborhood crowd that has gathered around begin to complain to the mostly white police about what seems police overreaction to the apparenty peaceful after-hours club. Things escalate as the crowd becomes more agitated, and soon becomes violent. This violence spreads through the neighborhood, ultimately turning into a riot with looting and burning of buildings, and it grows to involve both city and state police, and ultimately the National Guard is brought in to restore order.
We are kept on the street for the first part of the film. Bigelow uses a documentary style of filming, with handheld cameras and mixing in actual historical footage. In one incident, a black man loots a grocery store and is running home with two bags of food when a police officer, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter of The Revenant), chases him down and finally shoots him in the back. The man escapes but ultimately bleeds to death, and Krauss is dressed down by his superior, who tells him he’s classifying the action as a murder—but then sends Krauss back on the streets. Krauss, It should be noted at the outset, is not the actual name of any of the police officers involved in the incidents depicted in the film, and as presented he is a composite character. Despite the documentary style of the film, and despite the fact that the events depicted are essentially true and reconstructed from survivors’ testimony, some details and some characters are fictional. But while there was no actual Krauss, one of the officers involved in the Algiers incident was implicated in a prior shooting of a looter during the riot. And that is a significant point with regard to how much responsibility must be attached to the department itself for subsequent events.
We’re also introduced to a black security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega from Star Wars: The Force Awakens), the only officer involved that we see with a home life. Dismukes, who also works on the line at Ford, eventually gets involved in things at the Algiers Motel in order to try to assure a nonviolent outcome.
The story segues into the detailed sequence at the Algiers, which we see mainly through the eyes of Larry Reed (Algee Smith), the lead singer of The Dramatics, a local Detroit doo-wop group. On the third night of the riots, the group is about to get its big break, appearing onstage in a downtown theater, when suddenly the concert is shut down by police fearing violence in the area. Reed and his best friend Fred (Jacob Latimore from The Maze Runner) try to make their way home through riot-torn streets lined with national guard troops and police beating suspects with night sticks, but finally decide to rent a room at the Algiers for the night, and head home when things quiet down in the morning. Also staying at the motel are two teenage white girls from Ohio named Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) and the brasher Julie Ann (Hannah Murray), the Vietnam veteran Green (an impressive Anthony Mackie, who was also in Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker), and an impulsive hothead named Carl (Jason Mitchell of Straight Outta Compton), among others. Carl, frustrated and annoyed by the situation in Detroit, impulsively fires a small starter pistol out his motel room window.
That is the catalyst that brings three area police into the motel, looking for what they assume to be a sniper. Led by the loathsome Krauss, three Detroit police, plus at various points Dismukes and a National Guardsman, enter the motel and round up the lodgers and proceed to line them up against a wall and terrorize them, insisting that they “tell the truth” and reveal who the sniper is and where the nonexistent gun is hidden. As the guests insist that there is no gun and no sniper, Krauss ratchets up the interrogation tactics to the point of torture. And it goes on and on. The film is relentless as Krauss in its cruelty, and let me warn anyone planning to see this movie that it is not for the faint of heart, or weak of stomach.
Without going into spoiler detail, let me just say that by the end of the night, three black men are dead at the hands of the Detroit police. Perhaps even more disturbing, we see both the state police and the National Guard, both in a position to step in and stop the atrocity, wash their hands of the business. The last section of the film raises the hope that justice may actually be done, as the three police officers (as well as, flabbergastingly, Dismukes), are charged in the killings and put on trial. No one wathing the movie will be surprised at the all-white jury’s verdict. One of the flaws in the film, it seems to me, is that Dismukes is essentially dropped as a character after his arrest. We don’t learn why he is brought up on the same charges as the white officers. Is his problem his passivity, his willingness to go along with what is happening in the belief that he can mitigate damages, rather than actively seeking to prevent the abuses? We are never told.
The film’s chief effect, and no doubt its intent, is to stir up a feeling of moral outrage in the audience, which then, one assumes, might carry over into support for causes like the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Its effect, that is to say, is chiefly emotional. In this way it is actually much like a horror movie, a kind of home invasion story with Jason or Freddy Krueger replaced by the maniacal racist cop with the Nazi-sounding name of Krauss. Thus the effect for some viewers may be nothing more than horror, and they may see Krauss as simply the personifiation of inexplicable malice.
For nothing in the film gives Krauss any complexity. Even his two fellow officers have a little depth—one, Flynn (Ben O’Toole of Hacksaw Ridge), is a less overt racist who becomes incensed at finding white women in that black veteran’s room; the other, Demens (Jack Reynor from Macbeth) is motivated simply by doing what is expected of him, and does what the others do because he thinks he’s supposed to. But we know nothing about Krauss beyond what we see him do, and his motivation seems to be simply sadistic racism. The problem is this makes it too easy for us to dismiss what happened at the Algiers, to attribute to a single bad apple, to mark this sort of crime as an aberration.
But continuing incidents of the past fifty years, including the two incidents in Minnesota cited earlier, suggest that such acts of violence are endemic in the system. They aren’t all acts by deranged monsters. Or if they are, why are such persons so common among the police? Is the problem poor screening at the entry level? Or flawed training of new officers? Or burnout among veteran officers? Or a fundamental fear of black people that causes law enforcement to shoot first? These are questions Bigelow and Boel leave on the table, and that’s a sadly missed opportunity. Three Tennysons for this one.