Kathryn Bigelow clearly tries to use the city of Detroit as a synecdoche for America’s race relations. Her film begins with an animated prologue, detailing how the lure of factory jobs before WWI caused a great migration of African American labour to the industrial areas of the north, and eventually white flight to the suburbs left large swaths of major cities segregated. As her film opens, white police patrol the largely overcrowded and poor black portions of these urban centres, and the blatant institutional racism of this and other elements of American society cause widespread unrest.
These opening passages—after the awkward animated prologue—are masterful in showing how an American city can descend into chaos. Bigelow’s direction calls to mind the early portions of Polanski’s The Pianist, in showing how the unthinkably violent can come to seem so abjectly normal. We see a black congressman pleading with his constituents not to loot and riot. ‘This is your neighbourhood!’ he says, via megaphone. “I need you to keep it safe!’ The angry, earnest reply is, ‘Burn it down!’ Looking around, you see they kinda have a point.
Detroit introduces a large cast of characters. There’s a cop, played by Will Poulter, under censure for having shot a black man in the back, against orders. We meet the members of The Dramatics, an R&B group on the verge of a record deal whose big break is hampered by rioting. John Boyega plays a security guard who tries to befriend the national guardsman set up outside his grocery store. Anthony Mackie, from Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, plays a Vietnam vet. Etc.
These characters all intersect in Detroit’s second act, which dramatises the harrowing, real-life incident at the Algiers Motel in 1967. Led by Poulter’s character, a cadre of police officers, spurred by sounds of gunfire, storm the motel and terrorise its guests. As they search for the source of the shots, the behaviour of the police officers grows steadily sadistic—the Milgram experiment brought to life—and Bigelow’s film pivots and becomes a gruesome, suspenseful horror film.
And, well, why shouldn’t it? What happened at the Algiers was horrific, and living through it probably felt a little like living through something Eli Roth would dream up. Bigelow continues the aesthetic of her two previous films, which employ an artless, shaky-cam, faux documentary point-and-shoot camera style. This makes one yearn for the days when Bigelow seemed to care that her movies not look like YouTube videos, but it also abrogates any sense that she is exploiting her subject matter. Nothing is amped-up for effect; there’s no mistaking this for torture porn. (Though, if you didn’t know better, you might think you’d wandered into a Paul Greengrass film.) It all plays as a journalistic reenactment.
VERY MINOR SPOILERS
I found one thing quite curious about this sequence. What instigates the whole incident is one character, Carl, playing a prank with a harmless starter pistol. This causes the cops to bust in and torture the motel’s guests trying to find the source of what, from their point of view, was a very real threat. Pretty much everyone saw Carl with the starter pistol, but at no point in the evening’s increasingly displeasing events does anyone mention it to the officers. Why not? As Carl is the first one to die, there’s no more danger to him. It seems like information anyone would happily give up, given that the alternative could be, you know, dying.
END OF VERY MINOR SPOILERS
After the incident at the Algiers, Detroit lets all the air out of its tires in its miscalculated third act. Bigelow follows the trial of the police officers involved, but not to enough of a degree that we can feel the impact the verdict has on the community. She clearly tries to draw a comparison between the Detroit of 1967 and any of countless other American cities in the modern day, in which white police officers shoot and kill black citizens with seeming arbitrariness and impunity. And she does, to a certain degree. But the effect is more intellectual than stirring, which can only be a let down after the gut-punch of the second act.
I see Bigelow’s quandary. If she narrowed her expansive first and third acts, she may lose the context necessary to prevent her visceral second act from seeming exploitative—but it would offer a more focussed, pointed movie. If she had indulged a bit more, Detroit may have succeeded in being a more satisfying, more comprehensive treatise about Race in America. As it stands, the film is a bit of a dog’s dinner, feeling like a compromise culled from a much longer edit. The film’s most necessary, emotional moments get lost in an expositional miasma.
Follow G Clark on Twitter.