It’s been five long years since Kathryn Bigelow last captivated audiences with her historical thriller, Zero Dark Thirty. Her latest feature, Detroit, is a dramatic retelling of 1967’s Detroit uprising/riot. Heading into August, Detroit looked like a film oasis amidst a wasteland littered with the corpses of blockbuster films, but now that it’s here, does it deliver on that promise?
Detroit begins with a series of Jacob Lawrence paintings and title cards describing The Great Migration, where African-Americans from the south journeyed to the northern states. In the early 1900’s, they moved into cities as whites took flight towards suburbia, resulting in densely-populated urban neighbourhoods that were disproportionately black. Fast-forward fifty-years, and Detroit has become a racially-charged pressure cooker ready to explode.
The film jumps right into uprising’s inciting incident, as police raid an “unlicensed drinking establishment.” A crowd begins to form as police drag men and women out onto the street, becoming hostile and eventually throwing bricks and bottles at the police – just like that, the uprising begins. Bigelow dives into the chaos even before the audience has a grasp on what’s going on or meets a point of view character. It’s a bold choice, and the chaos, confusion, and rapid escalation of violence is so disorienting that you feel as though you’re swept up in the turmoil.
Although the riots lasted several days, Bigelow centers the story on a specific incident: the infamous event at the Algiers Motel. It’s hard to call this 50-year old event a spoiler, but I’ll leave out the specifics just in case. What I will say is that the police raided the Algiers Motel in search of a loaded firearm; when they couldn’t find the weapon, they terrorized their suspects. What plays out is a nerve-wracking historical thriller, and a damning statement about America’s imbalanced social power dynamics.
On a purely technical level, Bigelow is a cinematic wizard. She knows how to deliver white-knuckle action and pulse-pounding dramatic beats. Her frenetic shakey-cam style creates an up-close documentary look and feel that is quite unsettling. Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd also know when to slow down, and they often challenge viewers to experience every sickening detail of their uncompromising shots. You can’t help but hold your breath as beads of sweat roll down pleading black faces.
Detroit‘s immersive surround sound design also contributes to the experience’s all-out assault on the senses. The sound effects are so crisp that when a bottle smashed on a wall “behind me” I expected glass shards to smack me in the back of my neck. Detroit’s unbearable tension only feels worse once bullets start smashing into walls, pinging off of cars, and whizzing all around you. The tight editing, shaky-cam, and 360-degree audio create one of 2017’s most nerve-wracking movie watches.
Despite Bigelow’s technical artistry, there are aspects of Detroit that left me cold. The film spends the majority of its time in the Algiers Motel, but I never felt like I connected with or understood the characters driving the narrative. The film always felt soulless to me, even when it was at its most intense. There is a lack of depth to the characters that kept me from losing myself in the story, and in one case I never felt like I was watching an actual racist cop – instead, I was constantly aware of watching Will Poulter playing Officer Krauss, a one-dimensional bigot.
Given the horrors unfolding on screen, it’s impossible not to root against Detroit‘s antagonists, but rooting against an antagonist isn’t the same as rooting for the protagonist. The actors in Detroit feel like historical place-holders. John Boyega, Algee Smith, and Will Poulter are all fine in their roles, but you could replace them with another three actors without taking away from the film. Despite Detroit‘s 143-minute run time, the script doesn’t provide these talented young actors with enough room to add more texture to their characters.
Race is a complicated subject that we must discuss with nuance, insight, and empathy. When a film paints racism with such broad strokes, it’s retreading ground rather than moving the conversation forward. Detroit shows us the atrocities that took place in 1967, but stops short of exploring the institutions and beliefs that perpetuate them, merely shining a spotlight on issues that the news and social media continue bringing to light.
Ultimately, Detroit works better as a political statement than as a film. It’s a relentless attack on our senses that doesn’t let up until it drives its main point home: look at how little things have changed in 50-years. However, what Detroit lacks in cohesive themes and narrative through-lines, it makes up for as an unyielding visceral experience. The image of an American tank opening fire on its own citizens still haunts me as I write this review. It takes a high degree of technical finesse to make a film this unnerving. After watching Detroit, emotionally-depleted and politically-agitated moviegoers are guaranteed to stumble out of the theatre feeling woke — I’m not so sure about entertained.