Report for Duty
by Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, U.S., Annapurna Distribution
Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit takes place during a cataclysmic riot that gutted much of the eponymous city fifty years ago. In scope it moves from a large canvas approach to a smothering, sweaty claustrophobia—the scene of an unpunished crime, re-imagined. Bigelow, who started out studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, shows her background here in more than just her compositional dynamism. The film opens with a prologue using animations after the model of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series to tell the story of the Great Migration, which brought black southerners into the industrial centers of the north beginning around 1915, looking for work but often finding only more disappointment, after which it tells its story in three identifiable movements. The first depicts the flaring up of emotions and Molotov cocktails that began the five-day 12th Street riot in the early morning hours of July 23, 1967, after a confrontation between police raiding an unlicensed after-hours bar and African-American locals affronted by the rough roundup. This section, which features archival appearances from President Lyndon B. Johnson and then-Michigan Governor George W. Romney, proceeds without anything like an identifiable protagonist, but gradually some faces begin to emerge from the crowd—Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a member of the R&B group The Dramatics, and his friend Freddie Temple (Jacob Latimore); a detachment of white Detroit police officers led by the snake-faced, arch-browed Krauss (Will Poulter); and Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), an African-American security guard who tries to act as a peacemaker between the uniformed forces of white authority and their black suspects. These parties collide in the “Annex” section of the Algiers Motel, a detached manor-style house where Larry and Freddie have gone to wait out the rioting, and where the Detroit PD arrive to investigate the sounds of shots fired, killing three black men during the course of a spirited interrogation that is filmed in brutal detail, and which makes up the film’s centerpiece. Finally, we see the aftermath of what’s today known as the “Algiers Motel incident,” a replay of a familiar scenario in which an all-white jury refuses to pass down a conviction and the officers involved go free.
Detroit is Bigelow’s third collaboration with journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal, following The Hurt Locker (2009) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and it is difficult not to view their new film in light of the firestorm of debate that surrounded the last. As Zero Dark Thirty devoted a significant amount of time to the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation” program and its use of such savage techniques as waterboarding, so the centerpiece of Detroit is the local police delivering a merciless shakedown to the almost entirely African-American crowd at the Algiers Annex—there are two white girls from Ohio (Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray) found in the company of a black Vietnam vet (Anthony Mackie), and they are given equal opportunity abuse as race traitors.
Where C.I.A. interrogation was given as just one element in the larger procedural superstructure surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, interrogation is almost the entire story here. Trying to convince the Algiers residents to surrender a gun—though we are armed with the knowledge that the source of the shots was only a harmless starter pistol—they take turns dragging the captives into different rooms to stage fake “executions,” with the intention of getting the truth out of those who remain. This is the idea, at least—but these are some of the dumbest cops since the heyday of Keystone, and out of a combination of pure incompetence and viciousness the casualties start to mount and panic sets in, and in the end none of these clods seem much to remember the sniper that they were so concerned about. Much of this section confines the action to the lobby of the Algiers Annex, save for a successfully suspenseful interlude where Larry and Freddie, left alone for a moment, scramble into the basement in hopes of escape. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who has the dubious distinction of providing the signature shaky-cam for Paul Greengrass, works in jittery close quarters, achieving something more like monotony than what I suppose is the desired sense of empathy. Neither here nor in Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo nor in Greengrass’s United 93 (both 2006) have I found my understanding of the human condition deepened by watching people suffer at very great length from a very short distance, and a comparison to the bare minimum of means with which Jacob Lawrence, for example, depicted the idea of a lynching—a spike of branch, a hunk of black rope, a solemn, mourning figure—is instructive. Almost a half-century after the brilliant experimental theater satire “Be Black, Baby” in Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (1970), the cinema remains curiously dedicated to the idea of communicating historical knowledge through the crudest of means, blunt-force sensory assault. At least it isn’t a VR experience.
The issue of coerced testimony returns in the film’s final section, revolving around the 1969 trial of the involved officers in Mason, Michigan: two of the patrolmen (Ben O’Toole and Jack Reynor) admit sworn statements against Krauss, but these are thrown out of court as inadmissible. These statements are given behind closed doors, and we never see precisely how they are extracted—perhaps Bigelow doesn’t want to sanctify the suffering of bullies—and the irony of the parallel isn’t dwelt on. The organizing idea in the film’s closing scenes, it seems, is to turn over the perspective of the film to its black survivors, particularly Reed, who carries both physical and mental scars from his ordeal, and the film’s most ambivalent character, Dismukes, who remains opaque throughout, though Boyega brings to the character an innate understanding of head-down blue-collar stolidity—he has a marvelous moment where he dutifully trudges out with conciliatory cups of coffee to meet National Guardsmen arriving on a street across from the business he’s guarding that conveys an entire lifetime of wary compromise. It is in the late courtroom scenes and those surrounding them that Bigelow seems most uncertain of what to do with her material—while the movie sets about establishing a streamlined version of the historical facts of the trial, we find both Smith and Boyega still shell-shocked, the presiding air of their scenes being that of wrung-out exhaustion. It may be argued that exhaustion is an appropriate tone to take here. There is no righteous reckoning along the lines of Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), with the clack of the typewriter signaling the march of justice, only another acquittal in a long line of them. But in a movie already approaching two-and-a-half hours, it’s worth asking exactly how much exhaustion is called for, and if we—and the characters—aren’t owed something more that hinted-at redemption arcs.
To call Bigelow’s film a massive disappointment isn’t to include it among the truly bad movies that have been dragging their way through the cinemas this summer (it’s a letdown only because I still expect things of Bigelow, unlike the platoon of whey-faced hacks who are pleasantly mediocre enough to be entrusted with $150 million). Still, Detroit isn’t a film to be disposed of out of hand. There is a scene of Reed, after missing a big breakthrough performance due to a riot-related evacuation, hanging back to raise his voice to the rafters of the now-empty Fox Theatre, his ringing voice practically aching with the feeling of dreams deferred; the moment is poignant and memorable precisely because one doesn’t expect a musical interlude in a historical drama. The film’s single finest scene is a sort-of stand-off that takes place in the Annex shortly before the Detroit PD come busting in—it puts Larry, Freddie, and the girls together in a room with a heatedly monologuing Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell); keeps several mini-narrative plates spinning with a Peckinpah-like ingenuity; and builds up a sense of ambient tension through the use of some hot dogs frying on a stove and the competing sounds of Coltrane on the turntable and Motown on a transistor radio. Throughout, Bigelow, aided by the rhythmic cutting of William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, shows an acute awareness of the peculiar logic by which anger begins to snowball into violence, be it the gradually emboldened attitudes of the crowd who move from confronting the police with rocks and bottles to smashing in vitrines, or the descent into outright savagery by the Detroit PD attachment, introduced fatally shooting a fleeing suspect in the back shortly after having a conversation about their responsibility to the Negro in which they come off very much like good JFK Democrats.
All of this is proof, should any be needed, that Bigelow is a filmmaker of no small power and intuition, although elsewhere the movie seems curiously hesitant, hedging its bets with little bits of insurance against blowback or the possibility of being misunderstood. For the Blue Lives contingency there are a few nice cops to contrast the bad apples—I could be wrong, but I have a hard time imagining that “racist” was really considered a tough term of opprobrium in the Detroit PD of 1967—and a furtive white looter to diminish however slightly the racial dimension of events. This is not to say that there weren’t decent cops or white looters, but that the way these figures are deployed smacks awkwardly of the ass-covering tokenism that is currently de rigueur. Cultural dialogue has of late been deluged by righteous tut-tutting from an army of laptop moralists who have seized on pop media as an outlet for political soapboxing, and Bigelow here seems chastened by her last encounter with them.
Curious as it is to say of a movie about a race riot and its after-effects, and which is deeply invested in documenting the deep-tissue, rib-cracking reality of police brutality, Detroit lacks a sense of real, seething hate. The last section stumbles on a plotline involving Larry’s leaving music behind in disgust at the prospect of white people dancing to his records, and Poulter is too much a caricature of a fink cop, a sniveling, hateful Howdy Doody lookalike, to compel as anything other than a cartoon menace—put him next to the figure of Jason Clarke’s matter-of-fact, blandly chummy, hipster-bearded C.I.A. thug in Zero Dark Thirty and he hardly registers as a blip.
As has become a hoary cliché, Detroit ends by showing us photographs of the real-life analogs to the men and women we’ve seen portrayed, followed by an explanation that what we’ve just witnessed has followed the historical record as closely as possibly, as pieced together from the testimony of survivors. It was around this time I found myself wishing that Bigelow would give her recent ostensibly reportorial style a rest and start coloring outside the lines. Here, for the first time, when compared to the open horizons provided by genre in such films as Near Dark (1987), Point Break (1991), and Strange Days (1995), the docufiction mode has started to feel like a cul-de-sac rather than a source of rejuvenation. Though buoyed by Bigelow’s film sense, Detroit succumbs to problems endemic to “Based on Real Events” prestige properties, films that too often are preoccupied with the truth while not feeling entirely honest—the latter being what we should demand of art.