One of MCC’s long-standing rules is that every film I make the effort to see in theaters gets an entry. I saw Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing Detroit a few months ago but procrastinated writing about it because I had trouble sorting what few thoughts I had on it. We’re now less than a month away from the scheduled DVD release, and on the heels of an upcoming limited re-release meant to remind Oscar voters that it exists. Maybe it’s time to move on this and see what happens. I won’t be surprised if I get something wrong according to the zeitgeist or say something innately stupid, but that’s the risk we run in oversharing opinions online on sensitive subjects.
Short version for the unfamiliar: The latest film from the director of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, currently in a career phase that’s all about real-life pain and anguish, takes a timely turn toward the Civil Rights Movement era and, in particular, the night of July 25. 1967, when a group of racist police officers shake down the Algiers Motel, which they were convinced was the source of shots fired, a few among many in the wake of the infamous 12th Street Riot. The leader of the pack (Will Poulter from The Revenant, a.k.a. Eustace from Narnia) orders his badge-wielding buddies plus one tag-along security guard (reformed Stormtrooper John Boyega) to line up everyone they find in a single hallway — those they didn’t kill on the way in, anyway — and put them through several hours of excruciating interrogation, humiliation, and abusive attacks. Not all their victims made it out alive. After setting up the various players in their starting positions, much of the film is that brutal night of white-on-black violence that felt like it might never end, both for those who lived it and to a vastly lesser extent for those enduring this film.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: It takes a while to discern the main character from the ensemble for a while until cast members start fleeing or dying. Closest to the forefront (in terms of performance as well as historical significance) is Algee Smith (Earth to Echo) as singer Larry Reed, whose group the Dramatics saw their big Motown debut postponed because of the riots, and whose life was never the same after that night at the hotel.
My son recognized Hannah Murray from Game of Thrones as one of the two young white ladies trapped in the hotel and treated no less monstrously than the other hotel guests for their heinous crime of Being Nice to Black Guys While White. Also among the captives is Anthony “Falcon” Mackie, who last worked with Bigelow on The Hurt Locker, here as a transient veteran in the wrong place at the wrong time. Other faces includes Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E from Straight Outta Compton) and Malcolm David Kelley, a.k.a. Walt from Lost, all grown up.
Representing for the racists were mostly guys I didn’t know, though you might or might not recognize Jack Reynor, the bully from the great Sing Street. Later in the frustrating coda, John Krasinski from The Office is one of those nasty attorneys who’s too, too skilled at defending evildoers. And far too late in the game, Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris Partlow from The Wire!) has a minute or two as a bereaved parent.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Racism is bad. Torture is bad. Torturous racist interrogations are bad, immeasurably so when three innocent men die in the process. Torturous racist interrogations conducted by sworn officers ostensibly tasked with serving and protecting are The Worst. All of this essentially happened in real life, though accounts of the specifics apparently vary, but all point toward a thoroughly broken world desperately in need of healing and justice. Back in the 1960s, of course, it goes without saying. The intended parallels with the last two years’ headline allegations (and/or perceptions thereof) are impossible to miss unless you’re not on social media and missed all the online firestorms. Making matters worse are a few isolated moments when white characters could have made a difference, but who consciously step away from the situation and decide to let it sort itself out, with fatal results. One guy in particular from the National Guard doesn’t represent too well.
Unlike most movies on the subject, though, at least two black characters contribute to the mess of mistakes made. The first domino in the chain is a guy who thought it would be hilarious to fire shots out a window on an evening when citywide tension levels were ratcheted up to 11. Another is John Boyega himself, the humble security guard who thinks he’s simply helping the police with authorized activities only to watch with his jaw dropped as things spiral out of control…and all he can do is watch. If you’re hoping for a scene in which Boyega decides he’s had enough and gives a fantastic civil rights speech, or better yet takes out a whole squad of crooked armed bigots single-handedly, you’re better off returning to The Last Jedi countdown watch. Worse still, when the dust settles, Boyega’s helpless aider/abettor is the first up against the wall when it’s time for the internal affairs crackdown. The consequences these two men suffer far outstrip their thoughtless oversights, to put it far too mildly, but I’m not sure if those were simply narrative necessities for the sake of verité or tiny concessions to the “both sides” crowd as if to hint that not all the nonwhites on hand were saints and this should mean something.
Nitpicking? I’ve never sat through an entire, official 21st-century torture porn flick, but the night at the Algiers may be as close as I’d care to get to one anymore. It’s not thoroughly gory per se, but conceptually speaking it’s not for the squeamish. The captives quiver, cry, freak out, barely withstand the multiple blows and taunts from self-styled superiors who treat them like ants to be squished if they don’t fall in line. This state of high anxiety is half the film. The sound team delivers the same top-volume gun-toting sound effects that Bigelow demands in all her films, at least as far back as Blue Steel and Strange Days. In some ways the amplified punches, smashes, gun-cocking, shots fired, and raining bullet casings can be more disturbing than the sight of fake blood. We’ve come to accept surround-sound overdrive as part of the immersive action-flick experience. Used in service of a woeful true story, the violence almost feels reprehensible and glorified at the same time.
As the officer who orchestrates the one-night reign of terror, Will Poulter is an overwhelming menace in everyone’s face, his own men’s as well as his targets’, and simply will not stop. His normal English accent is wiped clean away, replaced with force-fed American machismo that occasionally feels stilted but in turn makes him — and by extension this dramatization — all the more unsettling. I assume that’s what they were aiming for, so props to him for hitting the mark, I guess? But I had to shut my eyes once or twice and take a break from the movie just to catch my breath. And get away from Poulter’s villainous eyebrows, which have vexed me since Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Honestly, if there’s a remote chance of the Fantastic Four ever being allowed on screens again in my lifetime, Poulter would be perfect as their archenemy the Puppet Master.
The grueling ordeal might have been more tolerable if we’d gotten more satisfying closure at the end — say, all the evil cops sent to prison, or all the captives teaming up to fight back, or at least John Boyega saving the day, either with a prop sword or with fireworks like he did in Attack the Block. Alas, that’s not how the Algiers Motel incident really ended. After the mandatory courtroom letdown in which racism wins again, Dragnet-style text commentary informs us of everyone’s subsequent fates, largely unjust for the unjust and unconscionably traumatic for all the other survivors. As in real life and in Twitter fights, everything ends in misery. Now leave the theater and have fun putting that misery to any sort of practical use.
So what’s to like? I already figured out Racism = Bad as a kid, and Violent Racism = Worse about a minute or two later…but sometimes we complacent Americans need to be unsettled. Sometimes we need to see the awfulness perpetrated by other Americans who think they’re doing us favors. Sometimes we need to be outraged. And sometimes we need our buttons pushed just enough to invite deeper introspection on where we’ve been, where we are, and how much farther we have to go. That seems to be Detroit‘s true point, that fifty years have brought in a few updates to the laws on the books, but haven’t changed as many hearts along the way as we’d hoped. Monsters still walk among us, bad things still happen to good people, and so on. The closest we get to a sign of hope is confirmation that former Motown hopeful Larry Reed is still alive today and an active church choir member. But his feels like a speck of light in a cavern of darkness.
If you’re into Very Important topical films that show you humanity’s true horrors up close and in unnerving detail — like, say, The Deer Hunter or The Passion of the Christ or Saving Private Ryan or last year’s Hacksaw Ridge or the original Roots miniseries (I was 5 when it aired, so the memories are dim), chances are you could be shouting from the rooftops on behalf of Detroit come awards season. By the same token, it’s one of those films I won’t be clamoring to withstand a second time.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Detroit end credits, but you can hang out for a new jam from The Roots called “It Ain’t Fair”. You can also listen and read along on YouTube, but try not to snicker at the part where one line is transcribed as “that which you sew, you shall reap.” Um, oops.