Katherine Bigelow’s “Detroit” begins with a striking but overreaching animated sequence, setting up a historical illustration of racism in this country and how it trickled into Michigan. Whereas the sprawling “O.J. Made in America” carefully and vividly established the troubling racial history building around (and spun off of) its central story, “Detroit” doesn’t create as strong a foundation.
In the midst of the 1967 Detroit riots, men and women either flee or partake in the civil unrest that tears their city apart. A cluster of characters, including a private security guard (played by John Boyega), a singer on the verge of stardom (played by Algee Smith), the singer’s best friend (played by Jacob Latimore), and a Vietnam Vet (played by Anthony Mackie), find themselves at the Algiers Hotel when a shot is fired. The law enforcers who arrive to investigate round up the suspects but can’t find a gun. One of the cops (played by Will Poulter) leads a lengthy interrogation in which the suspects are tortured over a long evening.
Despite a set-up that suggests a day-to-day chronicle, complete with “Day One” to mark the duration of the riots, the narrative drops the madness of the riot and local responses altogether. Everything that follows is on the Algiers Hotel incident. I understand the importance of this sequence but why not at least wrapping up the story of the riot and concluding the established narrative thread?
Bigelow’s angry film has noble intentions but it’s the chaos that resonates above all else. She seems to want to shed light on those who suffered, were terrorized and/or murdered but none of the characters emerge as anything more than one-note stick figures. Whether it’s the racist cops, the innocent black bystanders, the not-so-innocent black bystanders, the questionable white girls, the sympathetic law enforcers present or the corrupt lawmen who turn a blind eye, none of them emerge as anything more than mere talking points who utter dialog.
The timing for this film to appear is terrible. Rather than shed a light on awful, sadly recent occurrences, including everything from violent protests, multiple reports of police brutality, racist hate crimes and courtroom injustice, Bigelow’s film just adds to the cacophony of madness. If the message is to underline how things haven’t changed very much since 1967, then the evening news makes this point just fine without “Detroit.”
Bigelow’s large scale recreation of this awful occurrence can’t be faulted in terms of staging. Having said that, this is easily her biggest misfire since the 2002 back-to-back botches of “K19- The Widowmaker” and “The Weight of Water.” Longtime fans of Bigelow will note how the two racist cops at the center of this story closely resemble the equally broad (if far more effective) characters played by William Fichter and Vincent D’Onofrio in her 1995 cult favorite, “Strange Days.” As played by Poulter and Jack Reynor, the vile monsters of “Detroit” (who pull other weak-willed law enforcers into their dilemma) are all-too-real but are as thinly conceived as everyone else on screen.
The performances are all good, even a distracting, late-in-the-film cameo by John Krasinski. Boyega’s character, labeled an “Uncle Tom” and tasked with an impossible assignment, is the only one who struck me as more than one dimensional.
“Detroit” goes out of its way to show that not all white cops are racist and how not all civilians present during a riot are looters. That’s fine and good, except the moments where the protagonists encounter sympathetic policemen feel like jarring, tah-dah moments. It may reflect what really happened but the film’s tendency to take a sudden about-face with its Bad Cops/Good Cops feels contrived.
Movies like this are utterly necessary but they need to be done right. Like John Singleton’s well crafted, passionate and outraged “Rosewood,” Bigelow’s film invokes outrage and shock at racist violence and little else.
Perhaps it’s unfair to bring up Spike Lee’s superb “Do The Right Thing,” but compare the ending of that film, with its complex questions and a conclusion somehow both hopeful and pessimistic, to this one. It could be argued that Lee’s film was a work of fiction that compartmentalized its talking points, whereas Bigelow’s is as messy and unfair as real life. Yet, while Lee’s film knows how to provoke a valuable conversation, “Detroit” is most effective at getting an audience worked up, without providing some necessary, fresh perspective.