“I’m as real as real can get.”
Police brutality has long been a touchy subject in cinema and culture. How do you condemn the worst without offending the rest of those in blue? I think Spike Lee’s Brooklyn set masterpiece Do the Right Thing did it best, shining a light on racial tensions with great excessive success and to an almost hyperbolic effect, creating a fine dividing line between what is objectively wrong while also toeing said line with what feels to be subjectively right for each character. It’s a hard and timeworn film that makes you think, take sides, and no matter your moral code, come out in the end feeling a little bit corrupt. In other words, it sticks with you. And so despite its obvious skill and its resemblance to the current climate, I can’t say the same for Detroit. This is a film that should rightfully haunt and dismay every viewer long afterwards. Yet I sit here now recalling its eventual misguided dive into pure sadism, and while physically revolting to watch, my heart never writhed in pain because the pulse of the people had already gone flat. The technical execution is there but the storytelling feels culturally blind.
Detroit recalls a mournful weekend during the Summer of ’67, which by its end found street blocks ravaged and four African-American men murdered. Mark Boal’s script is at its most interesting when it sets up these racial divides, thrusting us right into the racket without shoehorning audiences into a single perspective. We’re there in the mess, an adjacent member of a confused and growing crowd. Who do we blame in the opening sequence? The cops who raid an illegal club celebrating black veterans abuse their power, but they’re still abiding within the boundaries of the law. We sympathize with those being arrested and wrangled around like cattle, but then the mobs throw rocks and begin to pilfer stores and set fire to shops. History clearly tells us that the citizens – specifically the African-Americans – are reacting to lifelong oppression with unvented fervor. But are they reacting the right way? Is there a right way? Detroit knows who’s bad and who’s good, and the opening cultivates debate because it takes neither side absolutely. This moral ambivalence is worth further investigation.
The separate storylines eventually converge without subtlety because with tensions rising so high, an abrupt encounter of opposite forces are bound to collide. It’s ineffective but still logistical. Officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter, who despite my mild reaction to the film deserves award’s consideration…he knows how to embody evil) and his partner Flynn (Ben O’Toole) patrol the streets, literally going from discussing how they need to help the Black community to Krauss delivering a shotgun slug to the back of a runner all within the same minute. These two men speak of good intentions but can be rightfully judged by their malicious actions. Meanwhile, the young vocal group called “The Dramatics” want their turn at stardom but are silenced as the city shuts down. In a powerful scene, lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith, a star in the making), takes the stage regardless, belting out to empty seats, symbolizing the seemingly inescapable plight of his brethren. Reed and his friend/manager Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) hole up in a slippery motel, hit on a couple of young white girls, and are introduced to their derelict friends. Close by is security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) looking after a small grocery store. He brings coffee to the officers outside, speaking in an Uncle Tom tongue, and shots are fired. They’re harmless blanks from Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), an acquaintance of the girls, but the police mistake it for sniper fire. At this point the script has built to its explosive head.
This is the point where Detroit completely lost me as an engaged viewer. Up until this divergence from a moderately distanced camera to one inspired by interrogation methods (specifically that of the downright torturous and infamous Milgram experiment), I had tolerated Barry Ackroyd’s shaky cinematography and attributed it as an attempt to contextualize the chaos of the moment. But as the story coordinates its three points into a triangle of fear and disdain, the camerawork becomes ineffective, and in my opinion, unnecessarily exploitative. Any sane human being will side with those pressed up against a wall and bludgeoned by the butts of the officers’ guns. And still, Detroit’s hopskotching viewfinder of a perspective seems more inclined to understand and humanize the immoral tactics of the police rather than surrender itself over to the helplessness of those being probed and paraded and ultimately killed. The great Sydney Pollack once said, “a good film should be two sides of a good argument.” Detroit’s central conflict proves this to be true both by how the opening third abides by Pollack’s words to great effect and how the rest of the film diminishes itself by disregarding them altogether.
What Detroit’s missing is authentic and strong characters we care about once they become victims. Think of John Singleton’s monumentally important Boyz n the Hood (or even Baby Boy, for that matter) and the victimization of African-Americans. Think of Ernest R. Dickerson’s Juice and its indictment of gun violence. Think of the recent documentary Whose Streets? and its absolutely brilliant depiction of a small radical movement growing into a global initiative for change. Perhaps most of all – in the wake of widespread police brutality and Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement – think of how Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut Fruitvale Station proves to be the prescient eye and the hyper-aware voice preaching through quiet action. Coogler’s deeply moving film is intimate because he’s in tune with the alienation. By comparison, Kathryn Bigelow – a masterful director and a white woman – simply can’t add a first person perspective or experience to this story of the past. Detroit succeeds as a complete lambast of the here and the now, but it’s also a glaring misfire in dire need of behind the scenes creatives who have lived these lives, who have been stopped and frisked, and who have wrongly been seen as lesser. Detroit is an important critique of America and does have its fair share of awakening moments, but it’s also overlong, full of conjecture, and tends to react to its own story more than it ever responds to it with knowing insight.
“I don’t got your name. I don’t know nothing about you.”
Rating: 2.5 out of 5