With Detroit, her latest feature, director Kathryn Bigelow has done something unusual: she’s made a film that fits all the criteria for what a “Kathryn Bigelow movie” should be, yet one that doesn’t much feel like a “Kathryn Bigelow movie.” Like several of Bigelow’s other feature-length efforts, Detroit is a critique of both institutional corruption and law enforcement as well as an examination of masculinity. But tonally and structurally the work feels like the product of a different director—until the credits rolled and the onscreen text read “Directed by Kathryn Bigelow,” I wondered whether I was seeing something helmed by someone else entirely.
Part of my confusion had to do with the odd narrative structure of the movie and its somewhat misleading title. Detroit opens with an animated minute-long sequence that explains the Great Migration, white flight, and urban segregation in the United States during the mid-20th century. The first live-action scene takes place in the predawn hours of July 23, 1967, at the moment an unlicensed after-hours bar was raided by Detroit police. Many viewers will likely infer that this incident instigated the 1967 Detroit riots, one of the deadliest instances of public disorder in American history, which prompted government officials to deploy the National Guard and both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The audience’s natural presumption at this point is that Bigelow’s film will be about the Detroit riots.
That’s true for the first hour, where Bigelow intercuts real-life news footage of the riots with her own narrative, which gradually introduces characters who are living in Detroit during the time period: Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who works in a factory during the day and as a security guard at night; a trio of trigger-happy plainclothesmen (Will Poulter, Ben O’ Toole, Jack Reynor); and Cleveland Larry Reed (Algee Smith), then the lead singer of the famous Motown group the Dramatics, and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore). Because of the rioting, a Dramatics performance at the Fox Theatre is canceled, and Reed and Temple make their way to the Algiers Motel to get a room for the night. Among the people staying at the Algiers are a Vietnam war veteran (Anthony Mackie), two girls visiting from Ohio (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever), and an adolescent prankster (Jason Mitchell).
Then Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal make an abrupt shift: the characters and their stories all converge during a police raid at the Algiers, an incident of police brutality and murder that occurred on the night of July 25, right in the middle of the surrounding melee. However much people may know about the Detroit riots, it’s unlikely they know a lot, if anything, about what transpired at the Algiers. For the sake of those who haven’t yet seen Detroit I’m not going to reveal anything further about the sequence, because it’s best to know as little as possible going in—the more information you have beforehand, the more it blunts the effect of the film.
Bigelow and Boal’s decision to zero in on the Algiers an hour into the movie is a deliberate strategy. The obvious and worthy reason for structuring the film this way is to provide the proper context for the Algiers raid—the chaotic environment in which the event took place, not to mention the historic and socioeconomic factors that help to explain both why some police officers so grossly abused their power and why such behavior was tolerated. But another, more manipulative motive is to take the viewer off guard, which makes the Algiers scenes more unexpected and thereby more horrifying. This wouldn’t be problematic if Detroit were more tonally cohesive, but that’s not the case—it’s a mess, which undercuts the power of the Algiers section.
One gets the sense that by trying to do too much, Bigelow and Boal have hamstrung some of Detroit‘s narrative components. Boal reveals as much in an essay published in New York magazine’s Vulture titled “Why I Wrote Detroit,” which is either a frank behind-the-scenes commentary, a marketing ploy, or both. In the piece Boal discloses that his decision to create Detroit began when he interviewed Reed, but the screenwriter soon “followed the story outward from Larry’s own.” As a result of interviews and extensive research, the text started to incorporate more plotlines. After working on the script with Bigelow, the ensuing product became “an ensemble piece,” he writes, “quickly shifting between characters in a nesting doll of movies within movies, a riot film that gives way to racial horror-crime that switches to courtroom drama, with several detours along the way . . . ” In other words, Boal eschewed his responsibility to the story in the interest of creative indulgence.
That indulgence plays out in clunky dialogue that significantly impairs Boal’s artistic intent. On my second viewing of Detroit, I wrote down every instance of cliche in the film and filled up a full page of my notebook. There’s an out-of-nowhere discussion of John Coltrane’s music that would fit better in a Lifetime movie, and in one scene a white police officer finds one of the black main characters beaten and bloody, then rhetorically asks, “Who could do this to someone?” When the officer tries to help the man into his car, he says, “Come on, brother.” At both screenings audience members laughed during this sequence, something that doesn’t typically happen when viewers are faced with the aftermath of racist violence.
Aside from the virtuosity of the Algiers scenes, Detroit is aided by a number of rich performances. Both Poulter (The Revenant) and Smith are actors good enough to obscure the ways in which their characters are written as caricatures, the former as a sociopathic cop and the latter as part of a VH1 made-for-TV biopic. But the standout is Boyega: he perfectly conveys the complicated nature of Dismukes, a person who so prizes his professional reputation that he ignores his sense of morality. Dismukes is the one character that Boal writes with any depth and nuance, and Boyega’s controlled performance overshadows any issues with the dialogue.
Bigelow and Boal’s previous collaborations, The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), are also movies about historic events (the Iraq war and the hunt for Osama bin Laden, respectively) that critique larger institutions (the military, the CIA) and government abuse (in both cases, the war on terror). Yet The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty are trained on lone protagonists so obsessed with their jobs that they ignore the dangers their actions pose to themselves and the people around them. That narrow perspective covertly makes Bigelow and Boal’s commentary more potent because it operates in the background, allowing the filmmakers to avoid advocacy.
Detroit, on the other hand, is transparently an activist film. As a result it’s dictated more by the views and emotions of the filmmakers than by artistic judgment or taste. Some viewers might think that’s the appropriate treatment for such a serious and important subject, but I’d argue that such an approach makes the movie less memorable. Bigelow and Boal ambitiously try to cover a lot of ground, but they’ve done so unevenly, and watching Detroit is ultimately an unnecessarily frustrating experience. v