Detroit

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Kathryn Bigelow

Starring

Algee Smith John Boyega Will Poulter

Anticipation.

A major director returns with – what looks like – a major film on a major subject.

Enjoyment.

Fascinating but deeply flawed.

In Retrospect.

A film to pick over and examine what went right and what went wrong.

Kathryn Bigelow returns with this expansive, rousing and overwrought cine-autopsy of the 1967 Detroit riots.

Just as a camera shifts its focus to capture the interplay between foreground and background objects, movie narratives too can sometimes switch from panoramic vistas to micro details, and then right back again. Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, based on a screenplay by Mark Boal (this is the pair’s third creative collaboration), is an exercise in bold focus shifting. It hurtles between perspectives, moments, episodes and emotions when, initially, it seems to want to capture the hubbub of an entire city in its roving lens. Which, let’s be honest, is an exciting and ambitious statement of intent.

Yet, when glancing at this vast panorama, you can’t help but wonder what fine details you’re missing. And then, when you’re able to see those details in gruelling close-up, it’s hard to suppress the desire to know what other important events are happening elsewhere. It’s a bind which Bigelow and Boal accept, but their film suffers from a skewed balance of emphasis. At one point we’re seeing everything, and then, suddenly, we’re seeing nothing.

From its widest vantage, the story starts with a montage of paintings by mid-century African-American artist, Jacob Lawrence, as a narration offers a précis of the Great Migration and the black experience in America. It then eventually lands on the city of Detroit in July of 1967, at the origin point of a large-scale race riot. An altercation at a speakeasy erupts into a prolonged tussle between armed police and tooled-up locals. The national guard are called in to curb dissent as businesses are ransacked and jail cells overflow. Certain members of law enforcement – young white men, in this case – see the whole sorry mess as an opportunity scratch those itchy trigger fingers and exercise some pre-emptive self defence.

Barry Ackroyd’s roving camera whips from person to person as he emulates the hustle and flow of a never-say-die war reporter, getting right down there in the shit. The film showcases some of his best work – it feels purpose built for his intuitive, docudrama style which presses the viewer to question what’s real and what’s fiction. Bigelow inserts the occasional flash of newsreel footage as a way to emphasise her fidelity to reality, but it only serves to remind that we’re watching a recreation, albeit a rigorous one.

There’s a thrilling suggestion about 20 minutes into the film that Detroit is going furnish us with the architecture of a riot instead of contriving character arcs and miniature dramas. This initial rejection of convention seems logical, and for a short while, it genuinely feels like this instinctual, freewheeling approach, where the story just daisy-chains from one event to the next, is working. And then suddenly, the audible clank of gears shifting cruds up the soundtrack, and things begin to slow down and a lone, tragic hero hoves into view.

Larry Reed (Algee Smith) is a member of smalltime R&B outfit The Dramatics, and his shot at the big leagues is placed on ice when a curfew causes their slot on an evening playbill to be nixed. This won’t be the worst thing to happen to Larry this evening, as his hidey-hole safe haven – the dingy urban-exotic paradise of the Algiers Motel – ends up accidentally beckoning a company of unsavoury cops, led by Will Poulter’s maniac patrolman Krauss.

At this point, the film casts aside the larger scale machinations of the riot to capture an interlude which plays like a flip-flop of the famous “Be Black Baby” shock theatre segment from Brian de Palma’s 1970 film, Hi, Mom!. This prolonged power-play sequence depicts a quasi-fascistic officer exerting unnecessary force over his (innocent) suspects, but his obvious racist attitudes are masked by a crooked internal logic – that he’s just doing his job. It’s a dangerous scenario where these men are primed towards racially-motivated violence, and they also spy a good chance to get away with it. The home guard and state police turn a blind eye rather than choose to curb any potential wrongdoing.

But where Detroit begins as an attempt to dramatise reality, this punishing central chapter plays like a schlock horror movie with a side of leering torture. Poulter comes across as the sort of cackling madman displaced from a classy giallo, and the violence is accentuated to the point of banality and back again. It’s as if the only way Bigelow and Boal can represent this locus point of supreme suffering is to just lay it out clean, with unambiguously evil cops bullying unambiguously virtuous citizens. As such, the film becomes about a single instance of police brutality rather than a work connected to the grand sweep of its opening history lesson.

The intention is to inject a double shot of close-quarters drama into the proceedings, and it works in the most superficial, disengaged way possible. The opening salvo, where we’re strafing through the flames of city on the brink, where the possibility of death lurks around ever bombed-out corner, is where the real drama lays. The idea that broad swathes of history – and the history of racial oppression at that – can be abbreviated in this single moment seems at best wrongheaded and at worst offensive.

John Boyega’s doleful, blue-collar mama’s boy Melvin Dismukes is given a front row seat to this outrage. He could be seen to represent the neutered, fearful onlooker watching with a camera phone as another white officer exploits a position of authority and metes out spectacular punishment on another black fall guy. For reasons of personal safety, he gags himself, yet this impartial position is milked for drama rather than any deeper insight into his helpless predicament. From the few scenes he has, Boyega manages to become film’s most ambiguous and interesting character, but there’s a point where he’s left behind for larger concerns.

It’s a fascinating and outraged work, one which is clearly trying to do something new with a fictionalised reality template. There’s the feeling that it tries a little too hard to exist as a touchpoint for more contemporary concerns – its every frame craves relevance. Yet, the details of the story are seldom allowed to speak for themselves, with every angle and talking point pre-loaded, and every question given a satisfactory – but seldom revelatory – answer.

Published 22 Aug 2017

Tags: Anthony Mackie John Boyega Kathryn Bigelow Mark Boal Will Poulter

Anticipation.

A major director returns with – what looks like – a major film on a major subject.

Enjoyment.

Fascinating but deeply flawed.

In Retrospect.

A film to pick over and examine what went right and what went wrong.

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