(Spoilers for Detroit to follow)
Kathryn Bigelow’s track record as a director of thrilling pulp is above reproach (Point Break, The Hurt Locker), but her collaborations with screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit) depicting real-life events (in the case of latter two) are beginning to display a troubling pattern of factual and emotional sloppiness. Zero Dark Thirty told the CIA-approved story of Osama Bin Laden’s kill operation (the one that reportedly tracked him through his courier) from the perspective of a not-especially-believable composite character played by Jessica Chastain, which many argued justified torture along the way, and at the very least depicted a kill operation in a detached, clinical way that allowed Americans to once again cheer extra-judicial vengeance without at least having to confront the blood and guts it entails.
Detroit‘s factual inadequacies are subtler, but less understandable, both narratively and historically. And in both cases the movies seem to add “drama” but not insight. This not only makes for a flawed piece of storytelling, but when you’re dealing with living history and thorny political issues, it’s actively harmful. Why retell if you’re not going to try to understand?
Detroit depicts a chapter in the Civil Rights Era unrest in Detroit that has come to be known as the Algiers Motel Incident. The incident occurred against the backdrop of the 12th Street Riot, which, as the film depicts, kicked off when police raided a black-owned bar that had been operating illegally, during a party for returning Vietnam veterans. As shown in Detroit‘s opening scenes, a mob formed when police began taking away bar patrons in paddy wagons, at first throwing bottles and then escalating into arson and looting before spreading and eventually growing into in a full-scale riot. To restore order, the government called in the National Guard, the Michigan State Police, and, most crucially, the notoriously racist, 93% white Detroit City Police.
The film tells the story from the perspective of a few of the people caught up in it. One is a police officer named “Krauss” (played by milk-faced eyebrow merchant Will Poulter). Krauss seems to be a fictionalized version of the 24-year-old Detroit Police Officer David Senak, who shot and killed a fleeing looter during the riots, but was inexplicably placed back on duty. The film depicts these events in the opening scenes, and Krauss takes the news that he’s being charged with murder with disturbing calm.
It’s a strong opening. There’s a power to both Krauss’s apparent certainty of being eventually exonerated by his white peers (Senak was), and in his blasé attitude toward it all. “He was running away, what the hell was I supposed to do?” Krauss asks, honestly curious, as if shooting an unarmed black man in the back with a shotgun was just the logical thing to do. There’s some insight into a structural understanding of racism here. Krauss can seem outwardly normal but is capable of atrocity simply because of his worldview. Detroit mostly doesn’t use one character’s sadism as a dissociative device (it’s easy to pretend you’re nothing like racists if you depict them as cackling ghouls), which is admirable.
Other major players in the drama include Melvin Dismukes (real name of the real person), played by John Boyega, a beefy factory worker moonlighting as a security guard called in to protect a local business; Fred Temple and Larry Reed (Jacob Latimore and Algee Smith), members of soul group The Dramatics; Juli Hysell and Karen Malloy (Hannah Murray, a.k.a. Game of Thrones‘ Gilly, and Kaitlyn Dever), two white hitchhikers from Columbus; Robert Greene, a black Vietnam vet played by Anthony Mackie; and Carl Cooper and Auburey Pollard, a couple of neighborhood characters, played, respectively by Jason Mitchell (previously Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton and who’s so damned good and should be in everything) and Nathan Davis Jr.
(*) He’s named “Aubrey” according to IMDB, though reports from the Detroit Free Press and John Hersey’s 1968 book on the incident, The Algiers Motel Incident, both have him as “Auburey.”
As the city burns around them, all these characters converge at the Algiers Motel, where the bulk of the movie takes place. The proverbial spark setting off the entire incident, according to the movie, is the moment Cooper, during an impromptu party in his room at the Algiers, attempting to demonstrate to the two white girls what it’s like to be black in Detroit, starts ordering around another black partygoer in an imitation of a white police officer, using what turns out to be a starter pistol filled with blanks. After pretending to shoot the partygoer, he fires a few blanks out the window as a joke.