The second act of Detroit is less Selma than The Purge. A home invasion horror tapping into the deepest fears of the faces on its screen, the difference is that the white faces were placed in a dystopian future to live their terror, black faces are reliving a still-perpetuating history.
History is important to consider with Detroit. The best telling of history in film is never about what happens. It’s not rote recitation, documentary and written and oral history has proven itself far superior at those activities. History on film should understand the effects, the people, the reverberations in culture. In other words, not just what happened, but was felt, dreamed, and meant.
In all respects, Detroit is an impressive work of historical re-creation of an event that flew under the modern radar and is still muddled in its telling. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s third collaboration conveys gripping you-are-there visceral recreation that drips every bead of sweat on you and every bit of righteous fury that simply watching these events play out before you can and should induce.
Yet, something’s not quite right. Not quite there. The story being told feels right, but it feels like it’s being told by the wrong person.
Detroit tells the story of the 1967 12th Street Riot primarily through the incident at the Algiers Hotel. Ignited by a late-night police raid on an unlicensed drinking club where 82 African-Americans celebrating the return of two GIs were arrested, the incident quickly spread and overtook the city. Police were fully mobilized, The National Guard was brought in, and countless African-Americans were subjected to the extreme measures designed to put the riot down.
At the Algiers Hotel, the belief that there was a sniper (created by a toy gun firing from Carl Cooper [Jason Mitchell]) led 3 police officers, headed up by Phillip Krauss (Will Poulter), as well as National Guardsmen to take hold of the Algiers Hotel annex and keep the residents hostage until one of them confessed to firing on the police.
This incident is the bulk of the action and runtime, preceded by a historical explanation and followed (largely unnecessarily) by the trial that came out of the Algiers incident. It’s clear that you see the appeal of this story to Bigelow on an aesthetic level.
It’s a chance for Bigelow to return to a more genre-aesthetic befitting some earlier work. The Algiers sequence is less historical drama and more home invasion-horror flick, the sadistic police officers befitting the slashers, the Black men (and white women) trapped in the hotel their victims. The horror all the more for knowing (and showing, in docudrama style, the real photos of their bodies) that this happened and still does.
Bigelow is in her element, ratcheting up the sweaty, late-night tension and the constant brutality of what’s happening. Guns cocking, batons beating, the air is filled with the sounds of violence. The entire second act plays like an extended version of the Seal Team 6 raid from the end of Zero Dark Thirty. A recreation of a muddled event that leaves you digging into your arm rests. It’s undoubtedly impressive and a reminder of the sheer skill someone like Bigelow brings to filmmaking.
It’s also impressive the cast she’s assembled. While none of her characters ever quite escape their setting and history (emulating the Dunkirk model), they’re each performed with all the passion that can be allowed. John Boyega’s fundamental charming decency as a leading man shines through, Algee Smith makes a harrowing impression as Lucas Reed, and the cast is dotted with talented player. Will Poulter is the film’s despicable MVP, sinister in a way too human way and using his arched eyebrows to considerable effect.
But it’s easy for Poulter to have a good performance. He’s the monster and he’s one of the only allowed to have agency in this film. He’s making the decisions, we intricately understand what brought him to this point. A facts-based recollection, a loud atonement for guilt can easily get into the mindset.
The Black characters put up against the wall never get the chance to take their own decisions. They’re saved by the “good” white police officers with agency, they’re subject to the whims of the world around them, never getting a chance to dive in and see their thought processes. Boal’s characters have all the semblance of a traditional story, but they never dive into get what they might be thinking.
If their powerlessness was intentional, it would have been beneficial for Detroit to understand the implications on the community, on the political ends and the reasons and psychological ramifications of these riots. Some understanding of the effects of this story on Black history, on Black political thought, some theorization on what all of this meant. Without it, Detroit feels like Black suffering without Black thought. There’s little inner life, it’s all outer pain.
I can’t help but think Bigelow and Boal weren’t the people to tell this story. They’re not enough. They reckon with its facts and reenactments, but never diving underneath the surface. We’re forced to watch beating after beating, but we’re never given the before or the after.