Director Kathryn Bigelow’s intense, provocative docudrama.
It’s one thing to review a movie, it’s another thing altogether to review an anxiety attack.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is a concussive dramatization of a true story, in which corrupt and racist police officers violently detained ten black men and two white women during the 12th Street Riot of 1967. The incident would leave innocent people dead, and if you’re not familiar with these events, and if you assume that justice would be served, then you might not have a particularly keen understanding of the history of the American criminal justice system.
Then again, if you aren’t familiar with this incident, you’re in Kathryn Bigelow’s target audience. Detroit is designed to shock and repel you and challenge your assumptions about law, order and everything in between, but that works best if you still actually have those assumptions. If the real-life events of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit are news to you then there’s a good chance you will emerge from this film having learned an important lesson.
Then again, if you do already know all about the Algiers Motel incident, or about any of the other, tragic examples of police brutality that still occur to this very day, Detroit may have an altogether different impact. The film’s message – that this should have never happened, should never happen again, and leaves innocent lives destroyed – may be unassailable, but it is also arguably reductive and even exploitative. Kathryn Bigelow puts more emphasis on the immediacy and the brutality of the crime than on the historical context, which she breezes over in an animated prologue and a rushed third act, and that creative decision matters.
The dramatic impact of not just depicting, but intentionally dwelling on the abuse and violence at the Algiers Motel, in real time, is truly shocking. And yet the actual dramatic value of putting that much of an accent on the brutality is a subject for long and meaningful debate. Detroit has the power to rattle the senses and if that’s the wake-up call audience members needed to appreciate the true horrors of institutionalized racism, then this film may have some sort of positive impact.
But everyone who didn’t need that message crammed down their throat today is going to be in for a very tough sit, and for very iffy reasons. After all, what are we supposed to get out of a film with a simplistic message that we already know, when the experience of watching that film is almost exclusively fear, pain and misery? For what purpose are these audience members going to watch Detroit, except to wallow in – again – fear, pain and misery? And how much of a selling point could that possibly be for a film?
One of the tragedies of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is that it calls itself “Detroit” in the first place, implying that these events encompass the whole experience of the city, at least during the 1967 riots. It’s an interpretation that Bigelow invites with her animated prologue, which establishes the Detroit riots as a natural extension of America’s racial pressure cooker history. But the events that transpire in Detroit are too insular and laser-focused on violence to effectively convey that grander scale. Worse yet, if these events really are intended to convey a microcosm of the Detroit experience, then the film is cynical to the point of being hopeless and, by extension, functionally useless.
Detroit would have very little impact whatsoever if the cast and crew weren’t invested in the material. The generally impressive ensemble features John Boyega, Will Poulter, Jacob Latimore, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, Anthony Mackie, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor and many others. The film has been shot with the same face-punch intensity we have come to expect from Kathryn Bigelow’s hard-hitting dramas, and it is edited with an eye towards nail-biting suspense. A hell of a lot of craftspersonship and skill have come together to bring these events to vivid life, for better and for worse.
But although Detroit has an undeniably visceral impact, and may indeed leave you staggering out of the theater, the question isn’t whether or not the film gives you an anxiety attack, it’s whether it’s worth hyperventilating about. No matter what, you will be angry after watching Detroit. But will you be angry at the world… or angry at this film?