Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit isn’t really about pain. It isn’t about the emotional duress experienced by African-Americans during the riots of the late 1960s. It is only barely, vaguely and emptily about the Algiers Motel Incident – in which three innocent black men were brutally murdered and several others were assaulted and humiliated by three white police officers.
What Detroit is really about is the systemic nature of racism. It’s about the structures that uphold and deepen racial biases. We see this in the broad strokes of the story, the different types of dialogue leading up to and in response to the 12th Street Riot, one of the most destructive riots in the history of the United States.
It’s the depiction of this civil unrest where Bigelow and her long-time collaborator Mark Boal, with whom she’s worked on award-winning films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, are successful. In showing conflicting conversations between Detroit citizens, white and black, they lay out the film’s core themes and ideas about the fundamental nature of systemic racism and its far-reaching crevices. The variety of conflicting opinions about the riot paints a large, contradictory, and messy picture of what civil rights looked like in the late 1960s.
The sheer terror of many black Detroit citizens is on display, as is the anger of the crowds, but what makes the film a more subtle and occasionally empathic depiction of civil unrest is the correlation between these intense emotions and the destitute living conditions of the Detroit urban population. Effective scenes include protests in which black politicians use megaphones to call for peace at protests and the angry black youth who defy and call them Uncle Toms. These are necessary moments in Detroit. They represent scenes we need to see; scenes that depict the internal struggles of the African-American community, the many ways in which this community tries to deal with its historically dehumanized treatment at the hands of law enforcement and the judicial system; scenes we don’t see enough of in cinema.
The film becomes less resonant once it moves onto the hotel incident, where two white girls on holiday socialize with several black men, before they’re abruptly interrogated by cops. The stories of John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as Melvin Dismukes, a security guard who becomes embroiled in the motel incident, and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), a sensitive, talented soul singer, who also becomes one of the tortured victims at the motel, stand out as two unique perspectives that provide longitudinal narrative arcs into their respective experiences and how witnessing the hotel incident changes them as people.
But beyond these two characters, Detroit spends far too much time on the actual hotel torture. Krauss is the deranged one, who has found ways to justify his violent racism, but his cruel leadership inspires two fellow officers to become even more depraved than he is. It’s through the sheer amount of time they hold their casualties captive – trying to find a supposed sniper who was really just a man with a toy gun – that the psychology of sadism becomes apparent to the viewer. But a conscientious viewer might ask why Bigelow and Boal allow the psychology of torturers to take up so much screen time while the emotional and physical harm of victims are denied that same dignity (the same can be asked about their previous films, too, especially Zero Dark Thirty, which asks larger, philosophical questions about torture interrogation techniques).
Bigelow’s recent work is a cinema of big, difficult questions, but its cold treatment of trauma often leaves an empty impression, one that doesn’t make the viewer understand or appreciate the moral implications of evil.