When I left the screening of Detroit I felt sick. Katheryn Bigelow’s exploration of the killings in the Algiers Hotel during the Detroit race riots of 1967 seems pretty much designed to do that. It’s so unflinching and brazen in its depiction of the brutalisation and murder of its characters that it just pulls a reaction out of you. It ain’t hard to feel emotional and exhausted when a film puts you against the wall for two hours with a gun to your back. It ain’t hard to generate empathy when the faces of these great actors are slick with blood and tears. It harder to turn that into something, make the sorta film that’ll turn that empathy into meaning.
Like, we’ve had these sorta conversations about Bigelow’s work before, y’all remember the endless discussions bout whether Zero Dark Thirty was a tacit endorsement of the use of illegal torture as a US military strategy? Course that all ties into the endless and stupid debate about whether depiction equals endorsement and we talk in boring circles forever without ever reaching a conclusion.I think on this case we can put that conversation aside though. It damn clear that this film despises the actions that we’re seeing. It just isn’t sure what to blame them on. So the film pokes at its audience, teases and antagonises them and when they ready to be consumed by righteous fury, sharpened and pointy, film too cowardly to do anything with them.
Yes, I do think it is cowardly. There gotta be more here. It at war with itself, it’s plot focussed right down in the opening minutes. We go from a city to a block to a building to a room. All that matters is the actions within. These actions so horrifying that it just ain’t a responsible action to dismiss the pain and suffering experienced I these real lives with a handwave towards, ‘Well, racism is bad, guys. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.’
Might not be so offensive were it not for the construction. Film very deliberately tries to become a historical document. It’s not just the costumes and the sets, beautiful by the way, amazing work from everyone there, it the way that this archival documentary footage, pictures and maybe audio to, the past float into the mix. A constant reminder that this is not our world, that this really happened, but y’know, fifty years ago.
Well, it’s happening now. The wounds dealt to American society by the racism and bigotry of those responsible for protecting and serving it ain’t vanished over the past fifty. They’re still being cut daily. The film’s refusal to acknowledge this reality weighs down on every moment of it in retrospect.
We are told time and again that the events we be witnessing are an aberration. The cops, well they’re irredeemable racist shitheels mad on the power a state of emergency gives them. The army, the state police are too self-involved concerned with covering their own backs from a civil rights violation suit to intervene. The jury eventually tasked with covering the malfeasance, all white.
There a lot of work the film go through to ensure that all these decisions are personalised, we see every link in the chain break until there’s nothing constraining these monsters. And it’s always just some guy, acting without consultation or complete information, that causes this. Never do these filmmakers seem to understand he true horror, that these systems are working just as they’re supposed to. That we live in a world that has designed itself to enable these things to happen, and one which happily supports the perpetrators.
And Tamir Rice’s killer walks free.
The film reaches the heights of idiocy when finally escaped from the scene of the crime one of the victims runs into a pair of officers. One of them actually gets the line ‘Who could have done this too you?’ That really the way you wanna go film, you sure you wanna ‘not all cops’ the Detroit Riots? That really seem like a sensible decision?
But that’s the only place the film gives itself to go. Mark Boal’s screenplay way too nervous to properly interrogate the events it recreating. Look at John Boyega’s character, a black security guard present at the scene throughout most of the happenings. Look at how the film has got nothing to say about his complicity in the events, even when things slow down and the film lose its way in the mess of a trial and it might even have time to analyse itself, it just don’t.
So much is the way of things. The film ends in a church, one of the victims finding a place for their life. We get a sense of peace, a sense of redemption, relief that the world back to normal. It a dishonest way to go out, it tells us everything is better. It ain’t, and for all its prestige and posture Detroit ain’t doing nothing to help. I think you’re supposed to be feeling sick at the state of the world, who knows, I was just sick of of the film.
Detroit is releasing in the UK August 25th.