This opening scene is far more layered and rich than anything that follows. After the opening animation explicitly calls out the heavily-white police force, the first cop the viewer sees is a black detective working with a black informant to catch a black crime lord who was supposed to be attending the party. Each of these characters would theoretically warrant a film of their own. What’s it like to be a black cop when your city explodes in anger directed at your brothers in arms? What’s it like to be the informant, captured in a machine that grinds down your neighbors? It’s expected that the many threads introduced will continue to be pulled as the film progresses, but Bigelow leaves these characters behind. She paints a deep picture in this scene, but it ends up being pure reportage on how the riots started.
The main plot of Detroit isn’t introduced til 20-30 minutes into it. At the Algiers hotel, a misunderstanding turned into an atrocious incident, and Bigelow and Boal clinically capture every gory detail. Players in this extended horror show include psychopathic cop Phillip Krauss (Will Poulter), a pair of R&B entertainers (Jacob Latimore and Aglee Smith) who get roped in because they were flirting with two young women (Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray), and a Vietnam vet on leave (Anthony Mackie). When Jason Mitchell’s Carl playfully and foolishly fires a starter pistol in the direction of some Guardsmen, the soldiers and the cops storm the hotel and tortuously interrogate the inhabitants for hours. Caught in between Krauss’ thugs, who gleefully take the lead, and the helpless hotel patrons is John Boyega’s Melvin, a security guard protecting a store next to the troops. Knowing that he can’t directly intervene lest he end up against the wall with the others that share his skin color, he tries instead to deescalate as the most level-headed person in the room.
Zero Dark Thirty found pity even for Osama bin Laden, holed up in his Abbottabad home unable to protect his family from the invading Navy SEALS. It had a moral muddle that made every decision meaningful and thoughtful. Detroit has none of that. The well-cast trio of abusive cops are by turns rat-faced, callous, and dull. Krauss is introduced killing a black man in flight, and then told by his superiors to calm down before going back out. They’re monstrous, in direct comparison to the earned victimhood of those they abuse at the Algiers. Detroit isn’t about anything beyond the injustice of this historical event. It doesn’t prod its audience to think about anything beyond evil cops debasing a captive populace. Time spent in the Algiers is a horror show, complete with all the screams and all the pleading and all the evil. It rubs the viewer’s nose in this incident. Why this particular story of all the ones that emerged from the Detroit riots? What does this particular story have to offer that another one doesn’t?
In its depiction of the Algiers hotel and its aftermath, Bigelow’s well within her wheelhouse as an evocative filmmaker, even if what she’s evoking is hateful and borderline exploitative. The sound design here is sickening, with gunshots heard through walls taking on the cadence of some hellish beast making guttural noises. Taking place in the dead of summer, she adds shimmering heat waves and keeps her characters damp with sweat, discomfort prodding her characters to make worse and worse decisions. In her depiction of personal and institutional racism, Bigelow hits and misses. In the plus column, it’s striking how little Mackie’s military service buys him with Krauss’ mob, or how quickly Krauss remembers his civil rights while so readily ignoring the rights of others. Conversely, Bigelow and Boal get unnecessarily explicit with the presence of Dever’s and Murray’s characters. They can’t resist having one of the cops openly deride the women for interracial relationships when it’s so obvious that’s a big part of why they’re so keen on the Algiers patrons. It’s one more way to make the cops virulent and uncomplicated and boring.
Detroit wages a war between outright villains and noble sufferers, but the loser is the viewer who has to endure this punishing experience. The real Algiers incident, while disturbing and worthy of remembrance as a blatant miscarriage of justice, doesn’t have much to add to the current understanding of race relations. Krauss shoots a black man in the back early on, and video footage of that exact same thing is readily available today. How long ago were Chicago’s torture squads operating? Why is Detroit necessary right now? It’s certainly not entertaining and it’s not enlightening beyond the facts of the case. It’s well-made by Bigelow and well-researched by Boal, but of all the stories this powerful duo could tell, why this one, especially when it initially teases deeper and fuller stories about the Detroit riots? Compared to something like 12 Years a Slave, an equally punishing film about historical injustice, there’s no grace here in spite of the horror, nor is there any sense of the film providing an unvarnished look at something mostly left hidden. I don’t mind a tough film, but make it worth it with some kind of intellectual or emotional value. Detroit has neither, just screams and muffled shotgun blasts and a misfire from an otherwise potent pair of filmmakers. C-