Directors often care quite a bit about criticism, more than they let on – take for instance D.W. Griffith, whose The Birth of a Nation was correctly interpreted as a piece of KKK recruitment propaganda, and therefore followed it up with a lament against Intolerance to prove that he wasn’t a racist (the jury’s still out on that one). Or Francis Ford Coppola, who believed that critics and audiences didn’t fully understand that The Godfather was intended as a critique of the mafia, so aimed to make Part II a much less romanticised vision (I’m pretty certain he succeeded – it’s my favourite film).
I think that Detroit similarly aims to redress criticisms levelled at Kathryn Bigelow’s previous effort, Zero Dark Thirty, which controversially included scenes of torture without entirely condemning the practice, hinting that it was necessary in order to find and kill Bin Laden. Detroit, in contrast, unambiguously decries all forms of brutality used in the name of the law. The violence used by the police to extract information from suspected criminals is shown to be excessive and to yield no positive results, tied up as it is with systemic racial prejudice.
Like Intolerance and The Godfather Part II, the urgency imparted by the director’s need for greater moral clarity makes for a better, more powerful and more interesting film. Detroit is at once more gripping and cerebral than Zero Dark Thirty because it communicates a true sense of horror at how humans in a position of power can abuse it, rather than simply showing the good guys hunting bad guys. David Thomson described Zero Dark Thirty as being like a ‘John Wayne movie’, but that’s not a charge that could be levelled at Detroit – unless that movie was The Searchers.
Detroit concerns a real life incident that took place during the city’s race riots of 1967, following the unlawful arrests of African-American partygoers. A man shoots a toy gun out of a hotel in a black neighbourhood, and is mistaken for a sniper, which leads to a violent police raid and a roundup of the usual suspects, a.k.a. all the young black men. These men are threatened, intimidated, beaten, and otherwise physically abused by the bellicose local cops, with the state police quickly backing off, not wanting to get caught up in a ‘civil rights case’.
Bigelow directs these terrible scenes with a real feeling for the unfortunate people caught up in the crisis, and effectively communicates the terror of being young and black and confronted by a hostile government-sanctioned repressive force. There are two white women who also get beaten and stripped by the aggressive cops; they are appalled by the prospect of these women having possibly slept with black men, in a similar way to how John Wayne reacts to Natalie Wood being married off to an Indian chief in The Searchers. Sexual insecurities often play into racism: ‘what’s wrong with us?’ one cop asks the women, self-pityingly, pathetically.
Will Poulter plays the ringleader of the racists, acting the part of a young policeman with an intensity that belies, or perhaps is exacerbated by, the babyish nature of his face. It’s his finest performance to date, and also easily the best in the film, one that intriguingly hints at some of the psychological deficiencies that lead to racist behaviour. He remains entirely engrossing, whilst inviting zero sympathy. Bigelow never quite digs as deep as Poulter does – she generally isn’t as concerned with the roots and causes of racism as with the surface suspense that its deployment creates. Never mind: her acknowledgment of it as an unavoidable element of the American judicial system is progress enough.
Apart from Poulter, the rest of the ensemble cast is solid, but nobody really stands out – the script doesn’t quite allow them to. John Boyega does well enough as a grocery store security guard who works across the street from the hotel, and who gets caught up in the mayhem and tries to de-esculate the tension between the black citizens and the white cops. He winds up being labelled an Uncle Tom figure and made legally culpable for the brutality, the worst of both worlds. Boyega has a star’s aura, but is restrained here, not tussling for the spotlight, perhaps a more impressive feat than his turn in Star Wars. Because it allows Algee Smith to be the film’s heart: he plays Larry, a singer who auditions for Motown and winds up rejecting their offer, after the harrowing events of the film take their toll. It’s a rejection of the company’s (partially) white audience, turning his back on them metaphorically, like Miles Davis used to do in concert.
So far this challenging film’s failed to recoup its $34 million budget, whilst Zero Dark Thirty made a healthy profit of over $90 million. This is a bitter indictment of modern audiences, sadly telling us, as if we needed to be told, that there is a far greater appetite for gung-ho action flicks than for piercing critiques of the justice system in America. But then again, times haven’t really changed: Intolerance and The Godfather Part II made less money than their predecessors too.
So go see Detroit, to show studio execs that there is still an appetite for tough-minded cinema, at least amongst a few of us.