There’s a moment early in Detroit that encapsulates the filmmakers approach to the material. The setting is 1967 Detroit, ravaged by race riots that have set the city aflame and the National Guard on its people. A young black girl peeks out her apartment window at the column of military troops and vehicles advancing down her neighbourhood. A gunner atop one of the trucks spots the bend in the blinds and directs fire at what he believes to be a sniper. The window explodes in a cloud of smoke and a mother’s anguished cries.
It’s a tragic moment. And Detroit is very much a tragedy: a slow, relentless march through violence towards injustice. But it’s divorced of context; it’s a scene that could have easily been cobbled together from the cutting room of director Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Like Hurt Locker, Detroit is a war film laced with horror aesthetics, a film that unapologetically revels in the humanity and inhumanity of violence. While that approach suited Hurt Locker – a film which diagnosed and deconstructed the military mindset – it’s misguided here.
We don’t know who that little girl is. We don’t know the soldier who fires at her. We don’t know the streets of Detroit, we don’t know the neighbourhood that preceded the rubble and the wreckage. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal evince an interest in these matters, but it’s shallow and fleeting. An animated prologue that offers platitudes about racial injustice. An opening scene – a raid upon an unlicensed bar at the heart of a black neighbourhood – that purports to portray the straw that broke the camel’s back but that tells us nothing of what Detroit is or what it would be.
Detroit isn’t telling the story of that little girl, but it might as well be. Despite the title, despite the opening act, this isn’t a broad story of the Detroit riots. This is the story of one night at the Algiers Motel: a night that began with a starter pistol and ended with violence and torture and three dead black bodies. Bigelow doesn’t cut past the events at the Algiers like she did that girl’s murder; instead, she offers a bloody autopsy. We’re introduced to the victims, the perpetrators (the police, the National Guard, a security guard) and grimly wait for their paths to cross in inevitable violence.
We might know a little about the victims. Larry (Algee Smith), an inspiring Motown singer and Fred (Jacob Latimore), his friend and manager. Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) and Julie (Hannah Murray), a pair of white girls in a black hotel with a black man (Anthony Mackie), girls of privilege for whom consequences is a foreign country. We know a little about the perpetrators, too. Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard who carries himself with quiet dignity but demonstrates little moral fibre to match. Krauss (Will Poulter), a racist and probably psychotic police officer already facing murder charges before he steps foot in the Algiers.
But Detroit isn’t really interested in who they are. It wants to shock us with the violence that ensues, and the lack of justice. It’s a gruelling film, but even as a white middle class Australian – years, kilometres and dollars removed from such circumstances – it’s not shocking. Police killing black men and getting away with it is as familiar a story now as it was half a century ago. So what do we learn from lingering on the suffering? What do we understand by recreating these events in fastidious detail (despite countless contradictory statements that mean whatever we see, it’s in some part fiction)?
It’s not that the film is poorly made. The actors, particularly Smith and Poulter, do incredible work. Detroit’s craft is beyond reproach; with its shaky-cam cinematography and machine-gun editing, it’s intended to be disorienting and disturbing – and it is. Yet the chaos-of-war aesthetic that served Bigelow so well in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty flattens the cultural complexity here. I don’t need to see innocent black men murdered to understand the injustice they face; but if I must relive their suffering, I hope to find some purpose beyond turning my stomach.
American films about race are films about white supremacy and black suffering. Detroit is that, but it’s mostly a film about the latter: specifically, violence and pain. When I think about the films that recalibrated my understanding of racial injustice in America – 12 Years a Slave, Do the Right Thing, Fruitvale Station – I think of films of violence, yes, but films that go beyond that violence into a savage evocation of a society strangling and suppressing individuality.
These are films by black filmmakers, of course. Maybe Detroit needed to be made by a black filmmaker; Bigelow, for all talents, renders this as a horrific spectacle, a kind of twisted tourism for polite white audience members like myself to tsk tsk at before driving home in silence. Maybe a black filmmaker would have made me understand how a neighbourhood can’t feel like a real neighbourhood under oppressive, racist rule, and that destruction is the only way forward. Maybe they would have paired the physical violence here with a richer representation of the societal violence that guides it. What Detroit offers is gruelling, but it needed to be more than that.