What does a director do? Someone else writes the words. Someone else acts them out. Someone else points the camera. Someone else decides what makes the cut. What then, do directors do to earn the high praise associated with a quality finished product? They direct.
From the brilliant still illustrations that make up the opening frames to the smoke and Coltrane-filled hotel rooms that set the scene, Kathryn Bigelow gives Detroit its feel. When its second act turns into historical-horror, it is Bigelow that ably guides the story through every pulse-pounding note. At times, it is something of a high-wire act; remaining as tense as possible for uncomfortably long periods. It is her talent that allows this material to shine in a way it likely wouldn’t in someone else’s hands. That there isn’t really much else going for it is both a testament to her abilities and a travesty considering all it could have been.
Detroit is set in the Summer of 1967 and opens on scenes of a mass-arrest of Black people who have just been pulled out of a party. The arrests lead to a string of violent confrontations and riotous outbreaks. We meet White officers who have caustic interactions with citizens and we meet Black citizens who try desperately to get on with their lives and avoid dying at the hands of the police.
With police-citizen tensions as high as possible, the main events of the film chronicle a police raid on the Algiers Motel. As police try to get to the bottom of who may or may not have shot at them from a window of the motel, they terrorize this group of young people in an effort to get them to ‘come clean’ about who they should be interrogating. It went as these things go and chaos ensued. And when the events in the motel are over, the real tragedy takes shape.
It feels like somewhere out there there is a three-hour version of this movie, with a different writer, that would be worthy of the absolute highest praise. So much about its construction and execution is just about perfect. It’s just that the foundation is imperfect in ways even Bigelow’s impeccable touch can’t cure. The story relies on this, no pun intended, ‘Black and White’ screenplay by Mark Boal that shows an all too simple good versus evil. Perhaps because Boal and Bigelow are both White, their version of events relies on cartoonishly evil officers and sainted victims. So cartoonish are these particular officers that other White officers remark on it with disgust. This narrative that clear cut racism is the real problem rings hollow in the face of everyday citizens choosing not to punish these officers once they go to trial. It rings hollow in 2017 when we know the same patterns are still playing out today. As is often the case, the real monster is all of us—collective apathy and the casual prejudices that go unchecked. That the film did not do more to try to capture that is a shame.
But screenplay aside, the film winds up having every bit of texture you could muster from such a weak starting point. When Bigelow wants you to feel our protagonists’ fears, you will feel them. Whether it is a shot we hear but don’t see or a body making contact with the floor, this is trauma turned up to 11. It would be hard not to have a visceral reaction Bigelow’s craft. In much the same way she made The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty feel like you were existing on a knife’s edge, so too does she here. It is only in the film’s third act where it feels like she doesn’t have complete and utter control. But a somewhat botched and rushed ending don’t ultimately undo the complete and utter devastation I felt in watching the terror that is the second act. With police violence in the headlines month-to-month, it feels like a movie for our times. But its hamfisted approach might blunt its chances at really making people think.
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