Depending on which unarmed black or brown person is killed by a white member of law enforcement, followed by a useless indictment and subsequent yet predictable acquittal, Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film DETROIT may be viewed as more than gruesome, suspense filled entertainment. For certain moviegoers, activists and surviving family members, DETROIT is a cinematic dramatization of what is lived everyday.
Set in July 1967, the two hour film begins with police shutting down an unlicensed bar known as “The Blind Pig” by forcing patrons out and lining them up on the street. While a paddy wagon takes some away, a small crowd forms shouting “What did they do?” The lookie loos grow even more incensed at the irrational parading and arrest of innocent citizens and before long rocks are thrown, glass windows to storefronts are smashed and the city is quickly ablaze. Bigelow (Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) splices in actual footage from the 1960s throughout the film which adds texture, but also acts as a cross reference to inform the audience what’s being dramatized is real.
Police couldn’t get a handle on the rioting so former Michigan Governor George W. Romney (2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s father) sends in the National Guard to “restore” order with a militarized presence outfitted in tanks.
As Detroit crumbles, an unsigned group named The Dramatics waits in the wings of a local theater practicing their routine before they go on stage in what appears to be a talent show. Led by Larry Reid (Algee Smith) the group is moments away from performing when they’re told the auditorium must be evacuated due to the violence. Reid is distraught and despite having been left by everyone save for his best friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) he sings to an empty room before finally leaving.
While the film is called DETROIT, moviegoers may be surprised to know the story is about the horrific events that occurred at the Algiers Motel, which Reid and Fred check into for the evening. There they meet Carl (Jason Mitchell) and two white girls Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) for what’s supposed to be a harmless evening until everything “blows over.” Seeing the commotion outside, Carl fires off three or four shots from a toy gun from a second-floor window under the belief police won’t be able to determine where the shots came from. Law enforcement soon swarms the motel and it’s from this point the audience is immersed head first into non-stop turmoil.
It’s hard to decipher if Bigelow was drunk off the allure of dramatizing black tragedy or wanted to showcase emotional black trauma for the sake of showcasing emotional black trauma, but there is very little to hold onto in this film. The audience initially receives it in small doses in the first 30-35 minutes. Whether it be seeing police mercilessly beat a black man in the street, or a sniper shoot through an open window killing a child. The first proper heart-wrenching moment comes when Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) sees Leon (Tyler James Williams) walking out of a looted store with two grocery bags full of items. Leon gives chase and Krauss shoots him twice in the back with a shotgun as he tries to climb a fence.
As if we didn’t see Walter Scott suffer the same fate for a lesser offense.
Make no mistake, this is a horror film being marketed as a period piece and Krauss is the most ferocious villain of them all. Played by the 24-year-old U.K. born actor, for the black community Poulter’s character is the boogeyman, he is the monster under our beds and no matter how much light sneaks into our room from mama leaving our bedroom door open, Krauss is still frightening. When asked how he washed his psychopathic character away, Poulter–who is warm, open, and bright–told VIBE it was easy to walk away from the heavy role but finding an entry point into the illogical mind of a racist proved to be the most challenging.
Krauss and his two cronies Flynn (Brian O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor) are born and bred domestic terrorists armed with the power of the law which only emboldens their unjustified aggression. As Reid, Fred, Karen, Julie and Greene, a veteran (Anthony Mackie) face the wall with their hands up, the three cops enact the “death game” in which they take one into a room, fire off a shot, and tell the person to be quiet “or the next one’s for real.” The others outside think their friend is dead and this is supposed to be the interrogation tactic that will inspire them to fess up to a gun that doesn’t exist. If not that, then a constant beating from fists, the butt of a gun to the temple of a forehead or any other form of violence is used.
Lingering throughout the motel is John Boyega’s character, Dismukes who has the legal authority to stop the egregious abuse of power by his fellow men in uniform, but is crippled with fear and outnumbered. Dismukes wants to intervene but is alone and offers the little help he can by advising a motel attendee to “survive the night.” Dismukes is meek, even-keeled but the equivalent to low-impact cardio. This is not to say powerful performances can’t possess gentleness, but Bigelow doesn’t offer a backstory for Dismukes leaving little, once again, for attendees to hold onto.
And if the horror of the motel isn’t enough, Bigelow takes you through the entire trial where the verdict is all too familiar. If there is one redeemable aspect to the film it would be the small role of Aubrey Pollard Sr. (Gbenga Akinnagbe). In the film, Mr. Pollard gets a phone call and learns his son was at the Algiers Motel and the gentleness that already lives in his eyes is first replaced with denial and then sorrow. Akinnagbe’s role and delivery proves one of the young men killed was loved, received love and most likely gave love. He wasn’t just another dead nigger, but yet, Akinnagbe’s role was still there as a facilitator of the pain endured.
I can’t help but wonder how this gruesome story with no silver lining would be told had the film and script been handled by a person of color. There is emotional terrorism, psychological trauma and a hodgepodge of anger and helplessness that stays with you. These scents are the cologne of an already oppressed people. The ballooning resentment and injustice that grows throughout the film is also too much to swallow, but aside from just telling the story, where Bigelow falls short is the fact the film is devoid of any real empathy. If the Academy-Award winning director assumes dead black bodies will inspire an outpouring of support for black people in America, Emmett Till’s open casket proved Sister Bigelow wrong many moons ago.
Ava DuVernay is a firm believer in showing the ramifications of being black in America. Her Netflix film 13th which chronicled the prison system was full of graphic images. Everything from Eric Garner’s chokehold death to surveillance footage of Kalief Browder being jumped inside Riker’s Island were littered throughout the film, but during an interview, the Academy-Award nominated director said she simply couldn’t end the documentary by listing the names of all the prestigious talking heads which contributed to the film. Instead, she showed pictures of black families, men, women, and children, smiling, laughing and living the part of life that black people deserve as well.
The African-American community does more than endure, Kathryn Bigelow knows this, I hope.
I also wonder who this film is for? At the bottom of the movie poster, it reads “It’s time we knew.” Who is we? And know what? If you’re black in America this story may very well be your existence, if you’re not black, well, it must be nice to personify the old adage ignorance is bliss.
DETROIT hits theaters August 4. Good luck.