Original Name: Detroit
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Runtime: 143 minutes
IMDB Link: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5390504/
Kathryn Bigelow: an American film director and screenwriter, noted for thriller films that often featured protagonists struggling with inner conflict. She was the first woman to win an Academy Award for best director, for The Hurt Locker (2008).
“Certainly, my first reaction when I heard this story was: ‘Am I the right person to make this film?’ Because I am absolutely not. But it’s been 50 years in the shadows, and what is more important than whether I am the right or wrong person to tell the story is that it is told. There is a responsibility the white community needs to take for racism in America. And I’m trying, with what means I have, to be a part of encouraging that conversation.”
Clocking over 2 hours and thirty minutes, Detroit is a long and messy account of Detroit’s riot in 1967, in both for its strength and weakness. The duo Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter, journalist Mark Boal have collaborated for the third time for another American tale in its vital moments. While Detroit ends up being like a little brother compared to their last two efforts, it still at times a demanding and frustrating look on the systemic racism in America during that era. Arguably one of the finest Hollywood director working today, Bigelow’s style is more than suitable for grand scale, semi-docu story like this. Along with Paul Greengrass, she has that long “you-participating-too” approach, where we are in the same distance as we would in real life. It comes as no surprise,l that they have the same DP, Barry Ackroyd, to shoot their film. The long take handheld cinematography that refuse to look away at these events unfold, make it a (rightfully) tense and exhausting experience for us viewers.
I consider the film hits its mark fairly early on, in the aftermath of the “unregistered party” in the black community that results in an angry mob and all-out war. Detroit is very good at building tension, and in this particular case you can sense very well how the tension boiling up and how that tension is bound to happen anyways, it’s just waiting for the fire catching fuel. The real event, however, happens later on in much smaller scale that take the biggest chunk of this film, the Algiers Motel incident in which after the police raid the hotel for a night, resulted 3 dead bodies, all black. When I said Detroit is long and messy, these are basically the characteristics of the film. The events itself are messy, that night feels like a long winded nightmare you can’t get out of, frustrating so. We see the police, lead by the young and racist Krauss (fearless and totally committed performance by William Poulter), investigate and torture the residents in the hotel at the time to find out about the gun. But there’s no gun to begin with. The compelling of the part is that, as Bigelow and the crew make no mistake that these events are results of systemic racial tension, the police side has their reasons for doing so. It’s not the kind of racism we see in movies like Mudbound, these police rarely outright insult their victims, but it’s more about their determination to repress the colored people at all cost, slowly and slowly stepping out of their boundary.
This uncomfortable feeling is elevated by Bigelow’s refusal to tone down or make shortcuts to what happening on screen. As the story unfolds, we see how a simple harmless prank could lead to such dangerous situations, and how what should be a mere “putting down pressure to figure out where the gun is” could lead to the abuse of power. Their most iconic sequences, which run for the length of an hour, feature the victims lining up against the wall, while the forces investigating (but more like yelling and abusing) them. You could feel the whole range of tensions from every member of this wonderful cast. This becomes a great strength in her films. Usually they don’t feed us much about the characters in terms of their backgrounds, but they act and do like real people, and their personal tension plus what they do tell you pretty much who they are. For example, you could feel one police has an intense sexual tension to those two white girls when he learns that they were in the same room with a black guy. Or Dismuke, a black private security ward, does his best to tone down the tension between two sides because he knows the drills. The sexual tension is especially on point because it speaks to the fear of black’s power from the white’s point of view.
What makes this event scary, moreover, is that 50 years on it’s still as relevant today as ever. As much as we try to look other ways, black oppression is still going on. And while I have issues with the focus on this particular event (which I’ll address later), the filmmakers nail it by making this just a peak of a systemic racism from the forces that root deep down in an American identity. If that particular event isn’t outrageous enough, what come after raise the anger to a higher notch. The cops were ruled out from murder to self-defence, and the only black guy in forces took the fall. Being said that, in many instances the film could benefit much better if they can cut some unnecessary parts. The earlier scene with the Dramatics got cancelled from their gig, for example, doesn’t offer much and could reduce into few lines in the dialogue. The aftermath, in addition, runs half an hour too long and they reduce compelling characters into some generic characters in service of the plot. Lastly, while Detroit is undoubtedly another homerun from Bigelow and Boal, the focus on smaller scale (compare to their previous features), make it not as impactful and earth-shattering as The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty.