Detroit (2017) is Katherine Bigelow's dramatization of the so-called Algiers Motel Incident, a particularly horrific instance of police brutality that occurred in July 1967 in the context of race riots in the Michigan city. The film is shot documentary style with handheld cameras jammed to within inches of the faces of the actors. And, the film is unrelievedly ugly, over-edited with pointless jump-cuts and poorly lit to simulate the exigencies of film-making in what was, for all practical purposes, a war-zone. There is no modulation of effect -- the entire film is shot in the same style regardless of the subject matter portrayed. Because the movie's subject is irredeemably ugly, I suppose, that one can argue that the picture's technical elements are consistent with its theme and narrative. The film is also designed and shot in a faux-primitive manner so that the director can integrate actual TV and film footage of the race riots into the picture -- this is done with great aplomb: the suture between the staged action and documentary footage of the mayhem in Detroit is almost seamless. There is, however, a disturbing aspect of dishonesty to this technique -- the film is shot like The Battle of Algiers (1966) to simulate a grainy, underlit, and chaotic documentary, a gritty slice of reality, but, of course, it is all contrived: I have no doubt that every jitter in the handheld camera, every conspicuously underlit shot, every out-of-focus close-up and whip pan or zoom to track action is, in fact, carefully (and expensively) contrived: millions were spent to make this film look ugly. With one exception, the cast is entirely unknown to me -- Bigelow doesn't want the audience to be distracted by recognizable movie stars; this would detract from the documentary effect that is so carefully cultivated throughout the movie's 2 1/2 hour length. But, for some reason, Bigelow authorizes an exception: the lawyer defending the three brutish killer-cops is John Krasinski, the cheerfully avuncular actor from The Office (and the voice-over for a number of advertisements). Here Krasinski is cast against type, playing a ferocious and shifty defense lawyer whose tactics assure the film's fait accompli climax: the acquittal of the three White police guilty of the massacre of Black men at the Algiers Motel. It seems bizarre to me that Bigelow would carefully cast all other parts in the film with unknown, but highly effective actors, and, then, insert Krasinski into the proceedings -- this epitomizes, I think, a series of unfortunate decisions afflicting the film's last forty-five minutes.
Detroit divides into three acts. After a colorful, animated overture featuring Jacob Lawrence's images of the great migration of southern Blacks to the north, Bigelow's peripatetic camera is thrust into the center of a party in an after-hours joint in Detroit: a serviceman returned from Vietnam is being feted by his African-American friends and neighbors. The cops break up the party and make the mistake of hauling off the people that they arrest in paddy wagons parked at the front of the "blind pig" tavern. This attracts a crowd that turns into a mob. The cops narrowly escape the retribution of the angry mob. Frustrated, the crowd runs amok, burning down businesses and looting storefronts. Three days of rioting ensue. Firefighters are attacked on the job and, apparently, there is sniper fire from rooftops. All of this is filmed in Bigelow's nasty, in-your-face style, but this part of the film, although rather abstract and impersonal, is effectively chaotic and frightening. In the course of rioting, a White cop with the face of a baby goblin -- the guy has the simpering look of a young Ted Cruz -- shoots a Black man who has been stealing groceries in the back. This cop is threatened by his boss and, indeed, the police chief says that he is going to recommend prosecution of the rogue officer for murder. But, inexplicably, -- and this is a defect in the film's narration -- the bad cop is returned to the streets and, a few minutes later, is the instigator of the Algiers Motel slaughter.
The action shifts to a group of young musicians, the Dramatics. They hope to perform at the Fox Theater and, indeed, are about to take the stage when the police surround the building, announce a curfew, and force the show to be closed before the doo-wop group can strut their stuff. Two members of the band get trapped in the violence on the streets. They end up in the annex to the Algier's Motel, a downtown dive notorious for crime and prostitution. At the motel, a bunch of Black men are partying with a couple of White girls and the two musicians take part in the festivities. The Black men are vying with one another for the attention of the White girls and there is a lot of one-upmanship among them. Ultimately, one of the men shows off by firing a starter pistol in the direction of the cops and National Guard cordon outside the building on the street. The soldiers and police riddle the motel with bullets and three White cops, led by the evil kid with the upturned eyebrows and goblin face, charge into the motel searching for a sniper. Almost immediately, the rogue cop pointlessly kills one of the Black men and plants a switchblade next to his body. Obsessed with finding a weapon to justify this atrocity, the cops line up all the people in the motel's annex, beat them repeatedly with the butts of their rifles, and threaten to kill them all unless they surrender the shooter and his weapon. But, of course, this is a futile exercise because there is no shooter and no gun, just the starter pistol, a sort of cap-gun. Everyone is covered with blood and Bigelow tracks the action relentlessly, keeping her camera no more than six to eight inches from the sweaty faces of the cops and the people being brutalized.
The events at the motel are Bigelow's primary concern and, for at least an hour, we are witness to various forms of physical and emotional torture inflicted on the hapless African-Americans in the motel. This is a harrowing and protracted set piece and there's no point in pretending that it isn't brutally effective and terrifying. The cops haul the Black men into a room, beat them up, and, then, pretend to shoot them, discharging their guns into the floor next to their cowering victims. One of the White cops doesn't get the program and, apparently, thinks that they are really shooting their suspects and so he guns down the man that he is interrogating. By this time, the State Troopers and the National Guard have washed their hands of the proceedings in the motel, withdrawing in order to stay out of what they characterize as a "civil rights" mess. Complicating this sequence are the reactions of a Black security guard, a man who has been hired to protect a nearby business, and who is complicit to some degree in the brutal conduct of the White cops -- he too thinks that there is a sniper and that, at least, at first the police are justified in using force to protect themselves. Of course, as the scene progresses, this man has more and more reservations about what he sees happening, although he never intervenes to help anyone. One of the White girls gets stripped by the cops and there is no doubt that much of the sadism in the scene is sexually inflected -- the White cops are protecting their sexual privileges with respect to the two pretty young Caucasian girls of questionable morality who appear to have Black boyfriends: the girls are accused of being prostitutes and the film leaves unclear their actual status. Ultimately, the cops can't find a gun and decide to abandon the motel, now a crime scene. They simply run away. One of the brutalized Black men is told that he hasn't seen anything and that the cops haven't committed any atrocities -- when he balks at this phony tale, the goblin-faced policeman guns him down.
The third act in the film focuses on the aftermath of the crimes committed at the Algiers Motel. (This incident was the subject of a bestseller by John Hershey. But the author donated all the proceeds of the book to a civil liberties group and stipulated that the text never be made into a movie for fear of sensationalizing the savagery at the motel -- the movie never acknowledges Hershey's book and, in fact, in a final title suggests that no one really knows what happened there; it's legal weasel-move and one that calls into question everything we have just seen.) Bigelow has exhausted herself with the set-piece involving the atrocities and she doesn't really seem much interested in her disheartening and obligatory demonstration of institutional racism in the American justice system. In this part of the film, Bigelow seems to think that we know the story so well that we can figure out episodes that are confusing or that seem to be pointless. There is a scene in a morgue in which the father of one of the victims is summoned to identify his dead son -- the sequence is shot in a way that makes no sense: we don't know whether the father has already identified his boy or is about to see the corpse; a White woman expresses sympathy but the scene can't be parsed. Similarly, we see a member of the Dramatics fingering tickets and, simultaneously being served a summons -- this sets up some kind of conflict and, in fact, we see the man traveling (where? why?) in the next shot, but this also doesn't make any narrative sense. (It's as if big chunks of the epilogue section have been left on the cutting room floor.) The lead singer of the Dramatics can no longer perform because he doesn't want his music to be used "so that White people can dance" -- he points out that the Dramatic's biggest fans are White. This seems a pretty trite point to make and the kid's revenge on White people, denying them his voice and dance music, is petulant and ill-motivated. (Bigelow can't settle on whether the man is making a political point or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that precludes him from singing when White people are in the house.) This character's struggles bring the film to its end and, once again, the movie's frenetic style undercuts its effects: the singer suffering from PTSD goes to a Black church and asks to be allowed to sing in the choir. First, we see him in a unheated "squat" -- Bigelow cuts the shot three times, using time- or jump cuts and this form of decoupage is distracting: it pulls us out of the movie. There's no reason that this humble sequence should have been cut into three close-ups when a single set-up at a decent distance from the actor would have sufficed to make all the points implicit in the scene. Later, when the traumatized young man sings in church, we get a montage where, in fact, a restrained single shot or, perhaps, a tracking camera movement on wheels or with steady-cam would have been warranted. Instead the actor is in profile with the camera about three inches from the man's cheek, the camera cutting frequently for no reason at all -- again, this is completely distracting, draws attention to the film's style, and forcibly knocks us out of any reasonable emotional engagement with the picture.
Bigelow's previous film, also written by scenarist Ned Boal, was Zero Dark Thirty, a terrible picture ineptly shot and staged and, also, relentlessly savage and violent. Detroit is a great improvement on that film and the massacre sequence in the Algiers Motel has tremendous cumulative force. In some ways, the film seems to me to be Bigelow's penance for the Right-wing and politically reactionary implications of her previous movie. The picture reminds me of the much more stylish, and equally horrific atrocity film, Casualties of War, a 1989 Brian de Palma production from featuring a bravura set piece rape and murder and ending with an inconsequential trial in which the perpetrators evade justice. Bigelow's picture is pitch-perfect in its scenes of cruelty and injustice, but, ultimately, the entire film feels pointless -- we walk out of the movie stunned and depressed. But to what end? -- White police are still killing Black men and nothing really can be done about this fact. Bigelow is a master of drawing hysterical attention to things that are completely obvious and, probably, known by every one -- we see what bad stuff looks like, but this isn't the same as developing any understanding for the forces at work that have led us to these infamous misfortunes.