Unflinching eye: “Detroit” smolders with tension and brutality

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Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Detroit depicts the 1967 Algiers Motel incident that led to a three-day racially charged riot in the Motor City. Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Detroit depicts the 1967 Algiers Motel incident that led to a three-day racially charged riot in the Motor City. Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.

The push for greater representation in cinema, both in front of and behind the camera, is sometimes derided as an academic one that places statistics ahead of quality, of checked boxes over realism. What these critics miss is that representation means greater diversity of perspectives. People of different races, nationalities, genders, religions and sexual orientations experience the same world in radically different ways, so why shouldn’t we take a more active role in bringing their artistic visions to the big screen? Hollywood is determined to make big-issue movies anyway—starring straight white people—and if you want to talk artistic merit, maintaining the status quo means films about race and racism look less like Fruitvale Station and more like The Help and The Blind Side.


Detroit

R, 142 minutes

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield Stadium 14 & IMAX and Violet Crown Cinema


Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit, with all of its standout qualities and obvious lofty intentions, has intensified this debate ahead of its release—and rightly so. Though largely lauded, several reviews have called into question its treatment of black suffering depicted by white artists. Bigelow, one of the most talented directors working today, and perhaps the most prominent woman filmmaker in the industry, turns in a film that deadens its radical edge with an uncritical eye to police brutality by suggesting it is all the fault of a few bad apples.

The story centers around a factual incident amid the civil unrest in 1967 Detroit, in which several black men and two white women were taken hostage and brutalized at the Algiers Motel by local police, ostensibly in search of a sniper but fueled by racism.

Bigelow begins the film with historical context about the incident, first an animation depicting the history of racial migration—black populations to the industrialized North in search of jobs and stability, followed by white flight to the suburbs, taking the existing capital with them, while leaving the largely black cities under pressure and increasingly impoverished, leading to more aggressive policing. We then witness a police crackdown on a party at an establishment with no liquor license—illegal, yes, but the crackdown is swift and exceedingly brutal, not befitting the crime. This provides the spark for a full-scale rebellion, political in nature but depicted in the media as “blacks burning their own houses down.”

Bigelow clearly recognizes the need for such a story, one that provides material and political context for racial strife with a message that is more than a hollow plea for tolerance. What’s puzzling—and ultimately damning—is the decision to make almost the entire second act of the film one of brutalization by racists against black men and perceived race-traitors. It will be up to historians to determine whether this is an accurate representation of the events at the hotel, but dramatically and artistically it is empty, and as such its unflinching eye feels more like an exploitative gaze.

Kathryn Bigelow turns in a film that deadens its radical edge with an uncritical eye to police brutality by suggesting it is all the fault of a few bad apples.

Detroit had the potential to be a statement on racism and its place in our political and justice system. Instead, it goes out of its way to make unnecessary “not all cops” and “not all white people” overtures. The ensemble cast is excellent, particularly newcomer Algee Smith as Larry Cleveland, who ought to generate award buzz. The setup and resolution are notable both for historical reasons and as one of the few wide-release films to take the politics of riots and rebellions seriously. But with its ultimately mawkish message tinged more with liberal guilt than sharp analysis, Bigelow’s Detroit is destined to join Crash as overrated prestige projects that illustrate exactly why we should prioritize having people of color helm these sorts of stories.


Playing this week

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

Atomic Blonde, Brokeback Mountain, The Dark Tower, Dunkirk, The Emoji Movie, Spider-man: Homecoming

 

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Atomic Blonde, Baby Driver, The Big Sick, The Dark Tower, Despicable Me 3, Disney’s Newsies: The Broadway Musical, Dunkirk, The Emoji Movie, Girls Trip, Kidnap, Spider-man: Homecoming, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, War for the Planet of the Apes, Wonder Woman

 

Violet Crown Cinema

200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

Atomic Blonde, The Big Sick, Blow-up, The Dark Tower, Dunkirk, Girls Trip, Lady Macbeth, The Little Hours, Matilda, Spider-man: Homecoming

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