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Sunday, November 25, 2018

Director Report Card: Kathryn Bigelow (2017)

10. Detroit

It would seem Kathryn Bigelow has embraced her status as a director who handles controversial subjects in a gritty, close-up fashion. “The Hurt Locker” would tackle the War in Iraq. “Zero Dark Thirty” was about the hunt for Osama bin Ladin. After that, Bigelow would re-team with journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal to handle another hot button topic: Police brutality. In order to examine this very contemporary concern, the filmmaker would turn to the past. “Detroit” would directly adapt the Algiers Motel Incident, which also happened in the middle of the 12th Street Riots. Amid yet more controversy, “Detroit” would be ignored by audiences and garner few awards.  

It is July of 1967. A black club is raided by the Detroit Police Department, the suspects lined up on the walls outside. This spectacle triggers a riot and the National Guard is deployed into the city. Tensions between the predominantly white cops and largely black inner city population continue to rise. In the middle of this chaos, a group of people gather in the Algiers Motel: Larry Reed, lead singer of R&B group the Dramatics; his friend and bodyguard, two white teenage girls that follow them, a Vietnam veteran named Karl Greene. When one of the hotel residents jokingly shoots a starter pistol out a window, the police are brought in to investigate. What follows is an hours interrogation, in which belligerent cops antagonize and torture the black witnesses. Soon enough, people begin to die.

Much like “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow and Boal attempts to adopt an objective view point in “Detroit.” They present just the facts as accurately as they can. The film even ends with a disclaimer, admitting that some parts of the story had to be fictionalized. (A statement few biographic films find necessary to include.) So Bigelow's film adopts numerous viewpoints, a clear protagonist never quite emerging. The goal here is to put the audience in that hotel in 1967, to make them feel like they've lived through this horrible tragedy as much as the people who were there did.

This even extends to the film's visual design. As in her last three films, Bigelow adopts an on-the-ground style of direction. There's frequent handheld shots and some rough zooms, attempting to capture a documentary sense of actually being there. This is effective at putting the audience in the place of the cast, further helping create a tense and grim atmosphere. Yet it sometimes makes the film hard to follow. Bigelow occasionally employs shaky cam, the camera spasmodically moving around and making it difficult to tell what is actually happening. I understand why Bigelow made this choice but it's a little annoying. Luckily, this doesn't happen too often.

As the title implies, “Detroit” is not solely about the Algiers Motel incident. It shows the origins of the riot. It presents the violence in Detroit at the time as a symptom of greater racial injustice. The film begins by explaining how the changing times led to a largely black population in inner city locations like Detroit. From there, the rising tension between the races is shown through petty acts of racism, through a cop murdering a black man he assumes to be a mugger. We get a real sense of the time and the place, a world where the horrific violence that occurred could happen the way it did.

“Detroit,” obviously, is not a feel-good movement. (Which is likely a reason for its commercial failure.) It's quite a punishing cinematic experience. The situation is dire to begin with, a group of black men at the mercy of a clearly unhinged group of white police officers. As they force them to stand along the wall, their tactics rise to psychological torture and plain physical torture pretty much immediately. There's multiple beatings, threats of murder, sexually menace towards the women. The most upsetting sequence involves the motel residents being forced to prayer and sing hymns, their voices choked with tears and cries of agony. It's a horror film of sorts, dread-filled, intensely unpleasant, with a nervous tension that never lets up.

Bigelow's camera is unflinching. The portrayal of these violent, awful events is stark. Every punch, blow, and slam sends a shock through the viewer. The bloodshed is graphic and intense yet the violence is not gratuitous. Instead, it is grounded in sea-sick realism. Bigelow's treatment of violence has remained the same throughout most of her career. She's always quested for realism, to make the audience feel the weight of these violent acts. In “Detroit,” she achieves this goal perhaps better than any of her other films. You certainly don't feel excited or invigorated by any of the graphic acts in “Detroit.” Each one is draining to experience, each one is startling. Just like in real life.

The motivation behind these bracing depictions of violence was largely responsible for the controversy surrounding “Detroit.” Bigelow's docu-drama, some would say distant, approach to showing this horrible, historical abuse was questioned. Was she shining a light on a racist system? Exposing the horrible abuse black individuals have suffered at the hands of white authority figures? Of course she was. But in 2017, when the news is constantly full of stories of police brutality, when we hear every day about how awfully the black populace is treated by the system, was being reminded of this useful? It's really up to history over whether “Detroit” will be judged as a powerful statement about the police brutality or, as one reviewer put it, “trauma porn for white liberals.” I don't see it that why but my opinion probably doesn't matter so much in that regard.

If “Detroit” has a definite flaw, it's the lack of perspective we get into its characters' lives. By focusing so intently on one time and place, we don't learn much more about everyone than what's shown during those tense hours inside the hotel. The focus is strictly on documentation, an attempt to recreate everything as it happened as closely as possible. Which does not leave much room for genuine personality. There's no examination of anyone's inner life. Aside from Larry Reed, we don't learn anything about the other's dreams, aspirations, or doubts. While Bigelow's presentation could not be more expertly intense, it would've been nice to spend some more time with the rest of the cast before driving them fully into hell.

“Detroit” is long, running about two and a half hours. That lengthy run time probably would've been better spent exploring the lives of everyone involved. Instead, Bigelow adds an extended epilogue onto the end of the film. We see the court case that followed the incident at the hotel, the murdering cops getting away without being charged for any crime. From there, we see Larry find some sort of personal serenity with what happened. I somehow feel that, if documentation was Bigelow's primary goal, she perhaps should have ended the film as soon as everyone left the hotel. Otherwise, it feels like we're getting an incomplete look at a much bigger picture.

Another trend Bigelow continues from her last few films is avoiding well-known name actors in the cast, relying primarily upon character actors. The closest thing to big stars in the movie is John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes and Anthony Mackie as Karl Greene. Boyega does well in the part, playing someone deeply conflicted about what role he's playing in these events but ultimately hoping to help people. Mackie, meanwhile, shows a quiet defiance in the face of terrifying odds. Algee Smith, as the de facto protagonist of the film, spends most of his screen time in various traumatized states. He's very good at it and certainly does what he can to give the audience a more developed character. I also liked Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever, as the two young women tossed into this awful situation.

Yet the performance in the film that makes the most of an impression is in an antagonistic role. Will Poutler is terrifying as Philip Krauss, the vehemently racist police officer that is responsible for all the violence that follows. Poutler, a fine mist of sweat on his skin throughout most of the film, seems to delight in the power he has. The hotel situation gives him a chance to unleash some sort of sadistic tendency and he relishes in it. Poutler is perfect as the banally evil face of authority, someone happy to get away with the most awful shit imaginable. Ben O'Toole is similarly impressive as another officer who seems more amused and excited by the power he wields over this group of imprisoned, frightened people. 

From my perspective, “Detroit” is an expertly assembled film. Bigelow wanted to produce a specific reaction in the viewer, one of intense discomfort and distress. I would say she largely succeeded, creating a deeply unpleasant but unshakable motion picture. The underwhelming reaction that greeted “Detroit” might just be a case of a good film at the wrong time. (And, perhaps, a black filmmaker should've told this story.) It is not an easy movie to watch nor one I especially want to revisit. It's certainly flawed too, with some simple mistakes in the writing department. Yet “Detroit” makes an impression, portraying an ugly patch of history with an unblinking eye. [Grade: B]

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