When approaching any film grounded in historical events, particularly issues and themes which are sensitive to contemporary audiences, it is paramount that the filmmaker understands the emotional reality of a given subject, and that these inform their aesthetic choices in a meaningful way. It’s not enough – and sometimes it’s not even important – to simply tell a story with respect to the factual reality of the story, to describe the ‘what’ of an event. In a creative medium such as film, what always matters is the emotional truth of a story, the ‘why’, rather than its factuality. The best realist filmmakers, as well as any filmmakers given to films about historical events, have always understood this.
This is what Detroit understands also. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have helped to create an astoundingly powerful and visceral film about the timbre, the ley-lines, and fury of a riot, about the racial divide in America; about the corruption of its institutions, and most of all, about police brutality and racism. It is direct in getting across its message, but its message, once taken in, is exceptionally complex.
The pseudo-documentary style that Bigelow has adopted since the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008), with grainy close-ups, snap-zooms, and omnipotent sense of a recording presence, has the potential to overwhelm a film in its pursuit of put-you-right-there verisimilitude, particularly when used in the hands of less skilled filmmakers. Indeed, it has held back her films in the past; for all its straining towards such documentary-style realism, The Hurt Locker suffers from having the documentary aesthetic being bolted onto its narrative rather than grafted into its purpose, like a decision made in the heat of the moment rather than considered as part of a film’s overall approach.
Not so here, in the thick of the Detroit race riots of 1967 that the film portrays, we feel as another present observer, a news cameraman hurrying across streets to avoid being sprayed with police bullets. Equally, once the film settles into its elongated middle stretch, detailing the Algiers Motel Incident, in which a group of black men were rounded up, tortured and three murdered by white Detroit police officers, none of whom were later found guilty of any wrongdoing, we get a sense of being one of the unlucky few to be caught up in events, sometimes as if hiding from behind a door, unseen by the police officers basking in their cruelty. The camera is used not just as a tool with which to record the script, but a door into this reality, integrated seamlessly into the wider scope of the film.
Detroit could have easily devolved into a hand-wringing, didactic exercise, pleading with the audience to take its side, imploring us to cry about the loss of life, and there have been many weaker films made with this simplistic, hectoring approach. This simple emotional reaction, though visceral and cathartic, would not particularly do justice to the victims of police brutality. Such an approach would mark out the film as a rollercoaster ride of trauma.
Instead, the approach Detroit takes is more one given to investigation of certain elements lying behind the Detroit riots and the Algiers Motel incident. Above all it is given to analysing the systemic way in which racially-charged police brutality proliferates. The police officers who take charge inside the motel, Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O’Toole), and Demens (Jack Reynor), are not depicted as pure, unadulterated monsters (though Poulter comes mighty close), but as individuals whose own position within the poisonous institution of the American police force informs their behaviour. An early scene, before we get to the motel, shows the three patrolling in a police car, discussing how best to respond to the riots and what caused them. They do not express any opinions that you might explicitly call white supremacist or racist, but the crucial element is that they see themselves as part of the solution, as implicitly on the “correct” side of the moral divide. It this attitude which later informs their use of brutality and unadulterated racism, giving them their perceived moral right to act as they do.
We don’t simply get a depiction of police brutality, we get an understanding of the underlying social structure that underpins it, where even the ostensibly “non-racist” elements of the police force (such as higher-ups in the forces) are still part of the problem, existing as they do within an institution built on a corrupt, racist worldview of the purpose of law enforcement.
The three police officers don’t see themselves as villains, lacking an effective understanding of the world in which to appreciate where they stand. Detroit, in its huge ensemble cast, even finds time to depict how each officer approaches his role differently, how each officer’s implicit racism and prejudice changes the situation. There’s the professional sadism of Krauss, desperate to find the mystery sniper believed to have shot at the National Guard. There’s the toxic masculine anxiety of Flynn, who flies into a rage when he finds two white women in the same room as a black man. There’s the simpleton unquestioning nature of Demens, who appears to be the least openly prejudiced of the three, but who does what he’s told; the result being that he’s just as dangerous, if not more so.
Institutional power does not exist as a singular totem, but a living being which interacts with other elements around it: Bigelow depicts how the approaches of all the characters in Detroit are in some way or other affected by the institutions that surround them. Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a security officer, is perceived and derided (unfairly) by his fellow African-Americans as an Uncle Tom, uncomfortably attempts to straddle the divide between his lived experience of institutional oppression, his position as the sole black person in the film with any kind of authority bestowed upon him (as a result, he’s the only one tolerated by the police, and even then only just) and the act of simple survival. The unfortunate young men put up against the wall have even less means with which to enact change – every institution surrounding them is built solely to push them back down. They are mere pawns in a game. One of the principle figures we follow, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), then the lead singer of the Dramatics, is on the verge of a record deal. He’s the only figure who is shown as having the possibility of finding a way out of the poverty of his existence, but even then purely by pure talent rather than sheer hard work. His experience at the Algiers Motel beats that desire out of him, another instance of institutionalised oppression forcing the life out of people.
Detroit is a film that desires not to just depict something, but to depict the subtextual issues leading to something. Detroit understands violence and its political effects, which in the context of a riot, do not exist in a vacuum of hooliganism and looting. People don’t burn down their own homes for nothing, they burn them down, because, as Martin Luther King once said, “a riot is the language of the unheard”. The vast majority of people only turn to violence when they sense all other options are exhausted, and Detroit traces this explosion of frustration from its initial flash-point to its city-wide, wildfire effect, through to one, concentrated fireball in the Algiers Motel. Violence always has a meaning, even if it is destructive and nihilistic, as it is here.
Detroit is an overgrown film at times, with so much to take in, and so much detail within its frames. At times there are slight lapses in quality: for all its brilliance in depicting the institution of the police force in America as a brutalising organisation that dehumanises others (and in the process, its own members), there is one, strangely-placed, ever so minor lapse in such a depiction towards the end that’s somewhat baffling. Similarly, in its otherwise near-flawless ability to produce a documentary-style realism, I find it strange that the decision to include elements of documentary footage from the time was not also combined with a decision to synchronise the aspect ratio (documentary footage from the time is often in 4:3, whereas Detroit is in standard widescreen). It’s a common occurrence in such films, and I always find it reminds you you’re watching a film. This is the nitpicking of a pedant, however.
Detroit is exceptional. There may be plenty of other films that crackle with as much energy and fury as this, but there are few that will be capable of matching that fury with a depiction of the cause of its fury with such cutting analysis and nuance, willing to look it dead straight in the eye.
Detroit is now showing at Chapter Arts Centre until 21st September.