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Detroit film review: Kathryn Bigelow’s police violence faux-exposé, made by and for white people

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Is the point of director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit, based on real-life events that transpired in what became known as the “long hot summer of 1967“, to draw connections to the Black Lives Matter movement? Many commentators have interpreted Bigelow’s characteristically hard-hitting, exposé-like drama about police violence along such lines, unpacking it in the context of ‘a little bit of history repeating’.

It’s a reasonable reading of the Academy Award-winning director’s intent – especially given her oeuvre, which includes Zero Dark Thirty (about the hunt for Osama bin Laden) and The Hurt Locker (the Iraq war) comprises button-pressing political films that probe topical issues. But to view the themes of Detroit through the prism of a past nightmare returning comes dangerously close to presupposing that the sort of content the film depicts went away – a perspective that will hardly ring true for people who experience racism on an ongoing basis.

As it turns out, Detroit is not a film about daily racism. It takes place inside a pinpoint-specific time and place. Given Bigelow is a white director, and thus, would have little or no personal experience vis-à-vis the core themes of her movie, it is perhaps understandable that she might relegate gooseflesh-raising racism to the realms of a war zone: something violently out of the ordinary.

Bigelow harnesses the wobbly verisimilitude of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd – a regular Paul Greengrass collaborator – to deploy a faux-documentary, streetside style. The texture of Detroit, as in Greengrass’ United 93 and Captain Phillips, throbs with immediacy, and as such feels ultimately short-lived: a moment in time that will pass. The structure of the film reflects this, culminating with a trial in which heinous police misconduct the audience witnessed in gruelling detail is retrospectively analysed.

The director’s style also reduces, rather than enhances the drama. She cranks the dial to eleven, but forgets to turn on the console.

In lieu of a protagonist, the director’s sense of style (supposedly forensic, but also unquestionably didactic) is the central force guiding the narrative. Most of the action takes place in and around Algiers Motel in the titular city; in fact a large portion of this long (142 minutes) and arduous film transpires in a hallway. A group of mostly African American men, including Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) are pressed against the wall and brutally accosted by police, led – in wickedness rather than superiority – by evil Philip Krauss (the baby-faced Will Poulter).

Larry and Fred belong to an R&B band, their attempts to crack the big time depicted in scenes that feel like they belong to another film. If there is a moral centre of Detroit, it is private security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a barely defined character who hangs around as a silhouette of decency, with a compromised, mopey way about him, waiting to take a stand that never happens.

When a white police officer drives around Detroit’s disorderly streets early in the piece, remarking to a colleague that “they keep looking to us and we keep letting them down”, those words clanged. I kept asking myself: where does that line come from?

Is the screenwriter, Mark Boal (also white) attempting characterisation – as in, this is how cops talk? (If so, that line does not ring true with the character’s subsequent actions). Or is the film itself is speaking to us – as in, saying the black community look up to whites for guidance, and whites have let them down? The latter would be outrageous and insulting. Yet taking into account the perspective of the filmmakers, it feels more plausible than the former.

If the answer is neither, and that line is about people versus authority – the downtrodden against powers that be – that is perhaps even worse in the context of Detroit’s wider messages. It implies the confrontations the film depicts were not really a product of racism, per se, but of power and/or broken bureaucracy: a rather insidious form of whitewashing.

This does not exactly dispel the thought, ingrained from Detroit’s early moments, that it is a film about injustice suffered by the black community – but made by and for white people. It has nothing interesting or insightful to say about racism: only that it is shockingly real, and that the system often protects, rather than punishes perpetrators. Bigelow’s exhaustingly repetitive directorial approach, which at times borders on torture porn, doesn’t help, with a galling absence of interesting compositions, plotting and characters (although the cast are more than capable).

The director’s style also reduces, rather than enhances the drama. She cranks the dial to eleven, but forgets to turn on the console. A single explosion in Selma, Ava DuVernay’s excellent 2015 biopic of Martin Luther King Jnr, has more impact than a hundred bombs going off in Detroit.

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4 responses to “Detroit film review: Kathryn Bigelow’s police violence faux-exposé, made by and for white people

  1. I saw the film yesterday and don’t agree with LB’s nit-picking and condescending (if not actually sanctimonious?) review. Sorry Luke, for being so candid, but you certainly didn’t hold back. I can agree that the film had its faults, and the Sid Poitier type 2-job ‘Marshall moonlight’ character was one of them, as you recognise(although his retching in the finale did help reach some conclusion about his sense of self-worth, if nothing else). But the film as a whole was much more than the sum of some of its awkward parts. It was the slow fuse publicity which escaped from the US in recent years since the outrageous court hearings against the killer of the unarmed black teenager in Florida in 2012/13 which set the scene for a spate of racial-profiling police murders of black youth and men and women in so many state policy jurisdictions. The Ferguson blow-back of the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to these racist police killings was and still is a reaction to behaviour and attitudes so brilliantly depicted in the Detroit film when the black character with the tiny starter-gun does his terrifying impersonation of escalating racist police provocation of a black ‘suspect’ victim as a performance piece for his friends in the hotel. I notice LB says virtually nothing about the roles of the two young white women characters in the hotel and their reactions to the violence which I thought worked very well, and was revealing of the complexities of sexist violence as a counter-point and catalyst to the depictions of the racism. I’d say more but I’ve run out of time.

  2. With all the references to Kathryn Bigelow et al being white I wonder how appropriate it is for a white person to review this movie. How would a white person know if this film resonates with black people?

    1. Oh, Mike – you are so correct, and let’s take Mr Buckmaster’s projection to it’s suggested conclusion: take any director and question their personal resonance with any other experience than their own. How ludicrous. I usually enjoy LB’s thoughts about films, and having spent thirty years actually working in the film industry, I thought this a fanciful suggestion. It’s not his criticism of the content of the film mind, but the suggestion that Ms. Bigelow as a white woman shouldn’t have directed it! I can’t think of any black directors who would suit Mr Buskmaster’s criteria …

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