50 years on

Detroit tack­les racism and re­sult­ing ri­ots with no sen­ti­men­tal­ity or hero­ics

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - A.O. SCOTT

Racial slurs fly fast and fu­ri­ously in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, but the most trou­bling and di­vi­sive words ut­tered on­screen are vari­a­tions on the sim­ple pro­nouns “they” and “them.” The words may be per­fectly neu­tral in them­selves, but when used to separate one group of peo­ple from an­other they take on an in­sid­i­ous, im­plic­itly vi­o­lent con­no­ta­tion.

Detroit is set mainly dur­ing the ri­ot­ing that con­vulsed that city in the sum­mer of 1967, and in it “them” is most of­ten used — along with cog­nates like “those peo­ple” and “you peo­ple” — by white soldiers and po­lice of­fi­cers to re­fer to black cit­i­zens. (Nearly ev­ery white char­ac­ter with a speak­ing role wears a uni­form of some kind.) Oc­ca­sion­ally things go in the other di­rec­tion, with “they” re­fer­ring to the white au­thor­i­ties, but the re­ver­sal doesn’t in­di­cate any kind of sym­me­try.

The movie, which paints a some­times mud­dled pic­ture of a chaotic and con­tested mo­ment in his­tory, is ad­mirably clear in this re­gard. It un­der­stands and strives to dra­ma­tize racism not as a mat­ter of bad per­sonal at­ti­tudes or equal and op­po­site prej­u­dices, but rather as a struc­tur­ing fact of Amer­i­can life, an ap­pa­ra­tus of power, ex­clu­sion and con­trol wielded against “them.”

Bigelow and Mark Boal, the screen­writer (who col­lab­o­rated with her on The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), train their fo­cus on two as­pects of the Detroit

story: the day-to-day tex­ture of work­ing-class black life and the op­er­a­tions of white supremacy in con­di­tions of emer­gency. Bal­anc­ing those con­cerns is no easy task, and the film­mak­ers don’t take an easy route through their ma­te­rial. Detroit, like its name­sake city, is pop­u­lous and con­tra­dic­tory, with dozens of sig­nif­i­cant char­ac­ters com­pet­ing for at­ten­tion as richly de­tailed scenes swell in crescen­dos of des­per­ate sus­pense and sick­en­ing bru­tal­ity.

At mo­ments (the qui­etest as well as some of the most in­tense), you feel in tune with the fine grain of ex­pe­ri­ence and the larger sweep of his­tory. The spe­cific, close-up acts of cru­elty you wit­ness are com­pre­hen­si­ble as man­i­fes­ta­tions of a sys­temic, con­tin­u­ing and fre­quently in­vis­i­ble pat­tern of in­jus­tice. The film’s strug­gle against sim­pli­fi­ca­tion — against the sen­ti­men­tal­ity, wish­ful think­ing and out­right de­nial that de­fines most Hol­ly­wood con­sid­er­a­tions of Amer­ica’s racial past — is pal­pa­ble,

al­most heroic, even if it is not al­ways suc­cess­ful.

The open­ing 20 min­utes reg­is­ter Bigelow’s vir­tu­os­ity as a chore­og­ra­pher of chaos. She il­lu­mi­nates volatile and un­pre­dictable cir­cum­stances with amaz­ing poise and pre­ci­sion, pro­duc­ing an in­tu­itive un­der­stand­ing of events that quickly spiral be­yond the con­trol or com­pre­hen­sion of their par­tic­i­pants. Her com­bi­na­tion of ef­fi­ciency and ex­pres­sive­ness is matched by the ac­tors — a for­mi­da­ble, mostly youth­ful en­sem­ble in­clud­ing John Boyega, Will Poul­ter, Al­gee Smith and Ja­son Mitchell — even though the script at times in­hibits their range, lock­ing them into sim­ple stances of ag­gres­sion and fear.

Amid the fire and loot­ing and the au­dio and video clips of Michi­gan Gov. Ge­orge W. Rom­ney and Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son, a nar­rower plot takes shape, a real-life hor­ror movie folded into a bag­gier film that feels, by turns, like a com­bat pic­ture, a cavalry Western, a po­lice pro­ce­dural and a court­room drama.

The fates of a col­lec­tion of black and white Detroi­ters

(as well as two un­lucky vis­i­tors from Ohio) con­verge at a mo­tel on the west side of the city. Two friends, Fred (Ja­cob La­ti­more) and Larry (Smith), are look­ing for a lit­tle fun af­ter a dis­ap­point­ing evening at the Fox The­ater down­town. They flirt with Karen (Kait­lyn Dever) and Julie (Han­nah Mur­ray), two white women, and join a makeshift party in a room be­long­ing to Carl Cooper (Mitchell).

Down the hall is Greene (An­thony Mackie), a sol­dier just back from Viet­nam. A few blocks away, Melvin Dis­mukes (Boyega), a black se­cu­rity guard pro­tect­ing a gro­cery store, brings cof­fee to a group of Na­tional Guards­men, a ges­ture of diplo­macy as well as self-pro­tec­tion. “I don’t want those boys shoot­ing at us,” he tells his co-worker. Mean­while, three pa­trol­men cruise the city. One of them, Krauss (Poul­ter), is still on the job af­ter fa­tally shoot­ing an un­armed loot­ing sus­pect in the back.

The night­mare that brought them all to­gether is re­mem­bered as the Al­giers Mo­tel in­ci­dent. It’s a no­tably ugly chap­ter in the an­nals of

late-’60s ur­ban vi­o­lence, and one that has an es­pe­cially grim res­o­nance in our own time. Three black men were shot to death — nine other peo­ple were ter­ror­ized and beaten — af­ter the po­lice and guards­men ar­rived at the mo­tel, re­spond­ing to re­ports of sniper fire.

Real events de­picted in movies can’t ex­actly be given away, and this episode, while not as no­to­ri­ous as some other race-re­lated mur­ders of its era, isn’t all that ob­scure. (It is the sub­ject of a book by John Hersey, a writer for The New Yorker, pub­lished a year af­ter the ri­ots and reis­sued in 1997 with an in­for­ma­tive in­tro­duc­tion by his­to­rian Thomas J. Su­grue.) The ba­sic arc of the story — the killing of un­armed black men, the spasm of out­rage, the im­punity ul­ti­mately be­stowed on the per­pe­tra­tors — is al­ways shock­ing and rarely sur­pris­ing. I’m sorry if that’s a spoiler.

What mat­ters more to Bigelow and Boal than plot twists or sur­prises — and to an au­di­ence torn be­tween the urge to lean in and the de­sire to look away — is the minute-by-minute un­spool­ing of

ac­ci­dent, er­ror and in­ten­tional evil that pro­duced a tragic re­sult. The im­por­tant thing is not the lit­eral ac­cu­racy of the over­all ac­count but its plau­si­bil­ity. Does it feel true?

The an­swers, of course, can hardly be ob­jec­tive. The lan­guage of cin­e­matic ac­tion — which Bigelow speaks as flu­ently and in­ven­tively as any liv­ing Amer­i­can di­rec­tor — is an id­iom of feel­ing and vis­ceral re­sponse. There are parts of Detroit that have a raw, un­set­tled au­then­tic­ity, and oth­ers that sink in a wel­ter of scream­ing and curs­ing.

The Al­giers be­comes a trap, not only for the char­ac­ters, but for the film it­self, which loses its po­lit­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal co­her­ence as the night drags on. Krauss, with his dis­con­cert­ingly boy­ish looks and his sopho­moric at­tempts to seem thought­ful, is a cal­low so­ciopath. His fel­low of­fi­cers Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and De­mens (Jack Reynor) con­trib­ute sex­ual hys­te­ria (when they see white women in the com­pany of black men) and sheer id­iocy. They are dis­may­ingly be­liev­able fig­ures from the pre­his­tory of what is now called the

alt-right.

But as their vil­lainy comes into re­lief, the hu­man­ity of their hostages be­gins to blur. In a hor­ror movie, the mon­ster is in­evitably the cen­ter of in­ter­est, and once the first body in the mo­tel falls, Detroit be­gins to trade its vivid sense of nu­ance for blunt­ness and sen­sa­tion­al­ism. A com­plex, dread­ful piece of his­tory be­comes an un­di­alec­ti­cal ordeal of vi­cious­ness and vic­tim­hood.

It is cu­ri­ous that a movie set against a back­drop of black re­sis­tance and re­bel­lion — how­ever in­choate and self-de­struc­tive its ex­pres­sion may have been — should be­come a tale of black help­less­ness and pas­siv­ity.

The film­mak­ers seem aware of this prob­lem. They try to refuse to let racism have the fi­nal word and to free them­selves of sto­ry­telling con­ven­tions that in­sist on com­fort and con­sen­sus. It doesn’t quite work. Amer­i­can movies have a hard time with real-world prob­lems that have yet to be solved. Amer­i­can pol­i­tics does, too. The great virtue of Detroit is that it rec­og­nizes this dif­fi­culty.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit chron­i­cles the Al­giers Mo­tel in­ci­dent, in which three men were killed by po­lice of­fi­cers dur­ing the city’s 1967 ri­ots.

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