Detroit (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
20Jan/180

Detroit (2017)

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The summer is long, the heat of the day bleeds into the night, and the citizens of Detroit grow restless. After suffering one too many injustices from the police, a riot begins.  In the center of the chaos a small group of police officers hold several men and women hostage, demanding answers for a crime that doesn't exist.  Kathryn Bigelow directs Detroit, with the screenplay written by Mark Boal, and stars John Boyega, Will Poulter, and Algee Smith.

Detroit is a film without sympathy.  Director Kathryn Bigelow displays just enough knowledge of the economic backdrop of the Detroit riots to bring up the question why she did not present those implications visually.  Detroit is a film without empathy.  Time and again, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal settle for thin stereotypes of characters while finding ways of demeaning or presenting "both sides" as childish adults given too much power with not enough sense to use it without getting people killed.

Detroit is a moral failure so complete that I felt pity for the faces paraded about to be beaten, stripped, cursed at, and treated without mercy for over two hours of oblivious commentary.  This film is beyond shame, it should be taught as an example of white creative authorities stepping far outside their comfort zone without asking if what they were making was of any value.  It reinforces the worst stereotypes of liberal thinking - that a few childish officers are to blame for widespread violence against black Americans while going the extra grotesque step of blaming black Americans for their condition.  There is no systemic analysis, no characters that exist without degradation, no grasp that the conditions of the Detroit riots were brought about in-part by ignorant and hateful white people.

Bigelow steps wrong with the first frame and continues spiraling down.  The economic conditions of Detroit get a cartoon explanation, which suggests Bigelow sees the very real White flight as a fantasy, and never follows up by showing poverty in action.  Boal writes employed characters, on the cusp of breaking out into musical stardom, or otherwise able to provide for families in a way that runs counter to history.  The phrase, "knowing enough to be dangerous," raced to the front of my mind so many times - how could Bigelow and Boal be aware of history without putting it to work creatively?

This moment of dying lights on a black man working to live his dream is one of the only times Detroit lives up to the premise of its opening minutes.

Probably because, at the heart of her best films, Bigelow has the creative power of the best exploitation directors.  It's what made The Hurt Locker's factually implausible late-film bomb threats hum with emotional reality.  She's capable of capturing emotional truth through grotesquerie, with the prescient Strange Days tapping into the voyeuristic violence of future technology and finding libidinous horror in the "good ol' days" with The Loveless.  Speculative history is not her strong point, as shown in her now-dethroned worst film The Weight of Water or the slight if entertaining K-19: The Widowmaker.  Bigelow and Boal operate primarily in speculative territory here, as text explains before the end credits, and create a mess of parallels.

Consider how the central tension of Detroit starts, with a toy gun.  It wasn't that long ago Tamir Rice was murdered by a police officer for his own toy, and Bigelow suggests there's little growing up that occurs between kids and adults.  Carl (Jason Mitchell) shoots a starter pistol at police officers patrolling the neighborhood during the middle of a citywide riot.  The officers, led by the devilish Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), humiliate, torture, and then murder three unarmed black men.  Thanks to the framing, the officers never would have entered the lives of these men without Carl taking a prank too far.  This is respectability politics in extremis, creating (consciously or no) the suggestion that young Tamir would have grown up to be irresponsible Carl and is in some way responsible for his own death.

I might not be so extreme in my response had Bigelow not created a wealth of scenarios where black Americans are responsible for their own torment.  The raid on an illegal club that started the riots, not the hotel horror show, kicks off because a black informant tips off a black officer.  When the riots spread the first things Bigelow presents are looting and fires spread by the black citizens.  Those same black citizens respond with rage when Congressional Representative John Conyers (Laz Alonso) begs them to settle down.  The opening cartoon explaining the economic conditions feels more like a fantasy in the face of this anger and violence.  Bigelow and Boal's "stop hitting yourself" rewrite of history is all-encompassing, presenting the black community as a self-destructive entity long before Krauss enters the picture.

Between Detroit and The Last Jedi, I'm at the point where I'll beg for any screenwriter to give John Boyega a role that allows him the agency he had in Attack the Block.

Detroit's total moral cowardice is best exemplified by Melvin Dismukes, played by John Boyega as a near-mute witness to almost everything that happens in the hotel.  His silence functions as tacit approval, his delay in going to the police after that night a sign of deference to the authority that seeks his destruction, and his face front-and-center to take the blame at the end.  I have no doubt that the real Dismukes was harassed into silence, but Bigelow only presents his face clearly while the three white officers who carried out the murders have their faces blurred out.  Bigelow puts the weight of blame solely on Dismukes' shoulders in her refusal to even look at the white officers who were responsible for what happened. What absolute bollocks.

As a thriller Detroit is well-made, but at this point Bigelow has access to enough resources for her to film this kind of urban unrest in her sleep.  She and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd create a war zone of smoke and fire with the streets hazy with the rage of its inhabitants.  The rare moments of quiet are effective and actually make use of the information from the opening cartoon, the best being the heavy beams of stage lights slowly turning off in an empty theater while Larry (Algee Smith) tries to live out his dream of stardom.  Larry goes on to question what good his music can do if all it does is enrich the lives of the same white people who want him enslaved or dead.

That's the same question I wish Bigelow and Boal asked themselves before making Detroit.  They parade black pain through a gauntlet of torments constantly shown to be aberrations of the moment instead of built on conditions designed to keep black Americans down.  When asked if the crisis of American racism scared her, Bigelow responded, "Fear is not an option."  Clearly not as Detroit shows her skin is not on the line, her station in life too well-protected by the same forces mobilized to murder black Americans, and her reprehensible grasp of history not enough to illuminate the causes behind oppression or how those forces continue to marshal support today.  Detroit is a travesty that will forever throw suspicion on Bigelow and Boal's careers long after the two have passed on.

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Detroit (2017)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Screenplay written by Mark Boal.
Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, and Algee Smith.

Posted by Andrew

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