Bigelow captures the nervous energy of the riot gathering steam as these well-dressed black people are loaded up, and how that energy explodes into violence and fear. That fear extends to everyone – even Larry (Algee Smith) and Fred (Jacob Latimore), a singer and manager for the then-nascent singing group The Dramatics, who are just trying to get home after an aborted gig. The streets are impassable, so they get a room at the Algiers Motel, where several other African-Americans (and a couple of visiting white girls) are partying with little regard to the events outside. But the terror of those events comes to them.
The story of what happened there was told in John Hersey’s book The Algiers Motel Incident, but Detroit is not an adaptation – one of the conditions of survivors’ participation was that it would not be made into a film. So screenwriter Mark Boal (who previously collaborated with Bigelow on The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) re-reported the entire story, of how a prank with a pop-gun sent Detroit PD, National Guard, and State Police into the motel’s “annex” building, and where DPD officers spent hours “interrogating” this group to find the gun, and find out who fired it. By the end of that long night, three people — all three black men — were dead.
President Johnson said, of the looting and rioting, “That is crime and crime must be dealt with”; the film’s chief villain, Office Krauss (Will Poulter, frightening), takes that as a blank check, even though he’s already been reprimanded for shooting an unarmed looting suspect. “Calm down out there,” he’s warned, but he does not take that advice to heart, and one of the most troubling yet true elements of Detroit is how matter-of-factly its police characters abuse their authority: the casualness with which Krauss drops a razorblade next to the body, the bile in the voice of Officer Flynn (Ben O’Toole) when he asks the girls, “What’re you doin’ here,” the shrug with which the Michigan State Police officers acknowledge the situation going sideways, and leave rather than solve it. But most disturbingly, Detroit captures the threat they present – these cops can do anything they want, to anyone they want. “You think we we’re bluffing?” Krass asks. “This is Detroit. We don’t bluff.” And then, they don’t.
Detroit’s centerpiece section is the lengthy, terrifying interrogation, pulling no punches in the rough handling of these innocent people, and giving the viewer no more escape than they had. It’s a relentless sequence, lingering on the tears, the fear, the girls holding hands, the sense of doomed inevitability (Krauss keeps saying “We’ve got all the time in the world”), and it has played to some viewers as unnecessarily, unrelentingly brutal. But it does no good to soft-soap history like this, and it’s not just some sort of historical torture-porn either; the humanity of these characters (and the cruelty of others) is ever-present. Most affecting is the complexity of Dismukes (John Boyega, wonderful), a black security guard trying desperately to be the cool head who will prevail, to play a middle that’s just not there.
“Don’t antagonize these guys,” he warns. “I need you to survive the night.” Throughout that long, tough middle, Bigelow captures the hair-trigger intensity of this unbearably tense situation, via the restless, unsettling camerawork, the itchy framing and cutting, and the rich sound design (there’s always a radio playing somewhere in this movie). The film has a documentary immediacy, further enabled by the free intermingling of real archival footage, news reports, and scene photos. This really happened, they keep reminding us. It’s not just this thing in a movie.
Bigelow and Boal are telling a lot of stories here, perhaps to the film’s detriment – for example, the backstage and music business scenes are an easy snip – and the movie may be too busy, too long, too messy, too much. But credit is due to Bigelow and Boal for going beyond the crime, to its aftermath (one of the film’s many debts to Z), particularly in examining the human toll. It’s on the face of one victim’s father when he gets the call at work: “Aubrey’s supposed to be at home,” he insists. “It’s gotta be somebody else.” It’s in the affecting close-up of his hands, as he gathers up photos of his son to take to the morgue, for identification purposes. It’s in the frightening interrogation of Dismukes, the only man in uniform who acted honorably in that room – but still a black man, and thus one who can easily take the blame. And it’s in the overwhelming emotion of five words on the film’s closing screen: “He still lives in Detroit.”
Bigelow has spent much of her career making movies about men, about their interactions, transactions, and bravado, and it’s hard to think of another director who could better capture the tension of escalating, toxic masculinity between Larry and Fred and the strangers in the hotel room before the shots are fired, or the cops acting – and sometimes looking – like kids playing cowboy (“Why don’t you pick that up and defend yourself?”). Considering how much her preoccupations and Boal’s tireless attention to historical detail inform the picture, it’s dispiriting that a strain of criticism has appeared insisting that, as a white woman, it wasn’t Bigelow’s place to direct this film, or that it was made “by white creatives who do not understand the weight of the images they hone in on with an unflinching gaze.”
Putting aside the troubling bad faith assumed by such a charge, it’s worth wrestling with whether white filmmakers are to tell stories rooted in the history and struggles of people of color. As we’ve documented, at length, the homogeneity of American mainstream moviemaking, and stark lack of writers, directors, and craftspeople of color, is one of the most disturbing trends in contemporary cinema. There should be more African-Americans filmmakers with the resources to tell stories like these; inclusion behind the camera should be the ultimate goal, a target that eyes should stay locked on. But does that mean there’s a moratorium on those stories in the meantime? Would it somehow be better for this tragedy to continue to go untold than for it to be dramatized by a gifted, Oscar-winning director? Is she permitted only to tell stories about white people – and thus, put even more of them into a cultural marketplace that’s already saturated? (Fun fact: the controversy over Sofia Coppola choosing to stay in her lane by telling The Beguiled through her white lens is barely a month old. Damned if you do, etc.)
That’s everyone’s own call to make, I suppose. If Detroit had been made by a person of color, it might have been a better film; it might not’ve. It would’ve certainly been a different film, one with its own virtues and textures, but perhaps without the visceral terror and humanistic fury Bigelow has developed over her career and communicated here. She’s made a potent, powerful movie, and she made it right now, at a moment when it can inform a conversation. And that’s valuable.
“Detroit” is out now.