|Scene from Detroit|
When someone thinks of a war film, they think of the classical sense of a World War II scene in which two armies fight each other in gruesome fashion. It has the power to create powerful imagery and question the very nature of violence. However, there is another type of war film this summer that looks a little different: director Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit. Set in 1967, it follows a riot that took place in the city when overcrowding and police brutality slammed rudely against each other. It's a war not of countries, but of opposing views in American society. In some ways, it makes the events that follow more uncomfortable. It's also more powerful because, unlike something like Dunkirk, there is something about Detroit that still feels contemporary even 50 years after its story.
Of Bigelow's recent films, Detroit is possibly the most disjointed of her works. Whereas The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty followed more intimate narratives, the story of Detroit paints the city as a character, and its many layers are as fragile as a game of Jenga. Remove one, and the risk of toppling order becomes stronger. While the story follows several days of rioting, the central pieces begin to form around the third day when the mob finally becomes unruly. The city is about to be literally set on fire, and the film is about to get intimate. With a jarring shift, the first of a few, the film tries to explore justification for violence and chaos in a situation that is highly unpleasant.
In that crowd of rioters are cops and targeted people, specifically black males who become suspects just for looting stores. No life is safe and there's almost more power in numbers just because it lowers chances of being beaten. Even if the militaristic imagery doesn't appear for the first 30 minutes, there is the realization that this is a war. Maybe it isn't for land control, but it's for the themes of the Civil Rights. As the film will show in greater detail later, the real struggle is for inner city black citizens to get the same liberties that whites do. The only thing stopping them? The police that are supposed to be on their side. While the film does a decent job of showing that not all police are corrupt, they do serve as the uncomfortable villain in times of desperation.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the second act, which shifts from the crowds into the dreaded smaller numbers. It's when a gunshot is heard at the local Algiers Motel that the police begin using brute force. For those who found the interrogation scene in Zero Dark Thirty too intense, chances are that this will be worse. It becomes more painful the more that paranoia leads to violence caused by lack of answers. The law has given way to chaos, and there's no way to get out alive. Bigelow has made a horror movie, and one that is shocking the longer that it goes on. Again, what helps it to feel more uncomfortable is that there's an awareness of the chaos outside. While the Algiers Motel may only be a small distillation of the war, it embodies perfectly the core conflicts that everyone outside are facing.
The first act does a fine job of introducing characters in their many professions. There's a group of singers called The Dramatics, two visiting women, a veteran (Anthony Mackie) and a black security officer (John Boyega) who tries to maintain a peace. There's something to their often silent performances that adds a deeper weight. They are scared and helpless, but use what little power they have to introduce change. Nobody exits the film without some scarring, whether physical or mental. In the process, there's a deeper exploration of the self's reaction to war. Some can move on, but others find ways to cope.
This is the most confrontational assessment of racial tension in American history since 12 Years a Slave. Considering that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal also created a film whose cadence and appearance almost come off as a documentary, it all feels more real than Steve McQueen's film. There's close-up of the faces responding to trauma. The sound design highlights just how unnerving the voices outside are. This is a powder keg of hatred not willing to move past profiling and violence, and it manages to do so in a perfectly disjointed sense. Still, it is in those moments that the film recalls more recent American history. Anyone watching the crowd scenes will likely think of Ferguson. Anyone noticing injustice caused by police characters may think of a variety of men, whether Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, or anyone else who lead to the Black Lives Matter movement. Even callbacks to incidents like The Rodney King Riots feel ingrained in its DNA. It all feels intentional, and it feels like it explains why Bigelow thought that now was the perfect moment to make this film.
In theory, Detroit is another film that explores why racism is bad. However, it also is more directly a war movie that shows how distressing it can be to find order within chaos. Those wielding the power may not use it correctly, and instead make the situations worse in illegal manners. It's a film that finds empathy in subtle ways, showing just how difficult the situation is. Not all police are evil, but the ones that use it incorrectly create a negative image. It's why this war film doesn't end with a satisfaction of having one side win. If anything, it's one side fighting itself and losing miserably as everyone shakes in panic. It's a bummer that the film feels relevant, almost as if it was shot in real time during real riots. Still, it's a credit to Bigelow for making something explosive and confrontational that may not appeal to everyone, but will at least show just how much we need to work on as a society.