★★★★ / ★★★★
Kathryn Bigelow constructs yet another timely picture designed to incite conversation, perhaps debate, this time a fact-based drama that takes place during the 1967 Detroit riots where three white police officers murder innocent black civilians in cold blood because the men in uniform are convinced that there is a sniper among the motel guests. Although the events depicted here occurred forty years ago, it is impossible to ignore one of the many problems that have persisted through the years: how the police are trained to respond to potential threats especially when a person is black.
The picture is shot with a careful, patient eye. Notice that most of the first hour is dedicated to painting a canvas using large brush strokes when it comes to introducing elements that lead up to the first wave of riots. Unconcerned about following the usual beats of storytelling, it renders the viewers off-balance and some may even wonder where the story is heading. But the elliptical storytelling is a fascinating strategy because it is effective in making viewers, at least who might familiar with what had transpired in the Algiers Motel, forget some of the more specific details or, at the very least, engage us in the present and ignore the checklist containing what ought to happen and when.
Fact-based dramas are difficult to pull off with grace. After all, how can suspense be injected into the material when some of us already know what is about to happen? Bigelow employs her journalistic eye. She has a knack for condensing dense material into digestible parts. Notice how she allows the story to move from riots in the streets to the horrors in the motel. Take note of the increasing utilization of tight shots and limited physical space, such as the hallway where “suspects” are made to face the wall. We may not know the names of all the victims or their backstories, but we fear for their lives nonetheless. It is an example of a drama without need for typical character details and arcs.
There are numerous standout performances, from Algee Smith as the lead singer of the band The Dramatics to John Boyega as a security guard who finds himself caught in an extremely difficult and eventually tragic situation. But it is Will Poulter as trigger-happy cop Philip Krauss who delivers a performance so villainous that the character is enraging exactly because he is human. The character may lack subtlety, or rich details, but I enjoyed that it is up to us viewers to remind ourselves, especially during the picture’s most intense scenes, that there is racism in all of us—there just happens to be varying degrees of it. Here is a man who craves power and takes every opportunity to exercise it. But he ignores any responsibility or moral obligation that comes with the badge. Perhaps it is intentional for Krauss to come across as an archetype, an idea, a monster, more than a person.
The film might have improved upon greatly had it provided a deeper political context before the riots. After all, rebellions and resistance do not arise from nothing. If I were to ask Bigelow one question, it would be why she chose omit these details. Still, “Detroit” commands such dramatic realism, at times so raw to the point where one wishes to look away, that it is enough to show what happened without including the numerous complex reasons that lead up to it. An argument can be made that perhaps it is more appropriate to include these reasons in a documentary.