by Philip Price
If you thought the sound design in “Dunkirk” was crazy effective wait until you get a load of Kathryn Bigelow's “Detroit.” That isn't to say one is more effective than the other, but both utilize their environments and the sounds that resonate most within those environments to help push the visceral experience of both films to the next level. A level that indeed truly transcends the space and time of where one might be viewing the film and places you among the riots of the summer of 1967 where fear, uncertainty, and chaos ran rampant. I open with such a statement not to emphasize the technical aspects over everything else in a film as important and timely as “Detroit” to draw attention away from the tough and difficult subject matter at hand, but more to begin a dialogue about why the movie itself becomes equally effective and affecting. It is through this portal of sound, of genuine gunshot smatterings that ring out at any given point in the movie and make you feel not only as if you’re in the room with these characters, but are then also inherently placed in the headspace of someone such as Larry Reed (portrayed by newcomer Algee Smith), a singer and aspiring musician who just so happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is interesting, seeing how writer Mark Boal’s (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) screenplay brings several strands of characters, historical situations, and themes together into a single, encapsulating experience, but while we don’t meet Larry Reed until just prior to the events that the film dedicates its biggest chunk of time to it is his arc that we become most enamored with in many ways due largely to the fact he faces a wider variety of obstacles in terms of difficult choices as well as attempting to comprehend a life that seemingly has everything he ever hoped for stripped away in the matter of a handful of hours. That also said, “Detroit” is not about a single character, but more it is about how far away we still are from things being easy even if it would seem we’ve overcome so much in the fifty years since these infamous riots. As a piece of entertainment, Bigelow’s film isn’t something to be recommended for the experience which it entails, but rather because it is a heavy experience that needs to be known about and acknowledged. “Detroit” is about acknowledgment and about asking not why this happened in the past-we know why it happened-but rather if we’re doing today what we need to be doing to prevent as much from happening again. “Detroit” is a reminder we’re not doing as well as we should be in case you couldn’t tell already.
Beginning on Sunday, July 23, 1967 Bigelow and Boal first demonstrate the event that tipped the black community of Detroit from that of being non-violent to that of fully endorsing the violence that was boiling beneath them when police raided a night club that was operating without a liquor license. This was a common practice currently; making it difficult for black business owners to attain such licenses so raids such as this one could be more frequent and the film implies this is something of a common occurrence-that there is reason as much became the tipping point. It was on this night that several African Americans were taken into custody and civil unrest became the response to constantly being picked on. There had naturally been years of activism prior to the riots in 1967 as this was the decade of the civil rights movement and while Bigelow and Boal's film doesn't touch on as much in specifics the film’s opening exposition is emblazoned upon the images akin to the works of great 20th century artist Jacob Lawrence. This portrayal, in many ways, brings the audience up to date on where the civil rights movement was in the summer of 1967 and how, at least in Detroit, there was no more room for patience-the opening grenade of a scene displaying not the seeds of an uprising, but the sprouting of as much. The time had come. There had been enough. This was the breaking point. In what would go on for five days 43 people would die, 1,189 would be injured, and 7,231 would be arrested. With “Detroit” though, Bigelow and Boal focus on a single event in order to paint the most vivid picture of evil and pure vitriol one could likely paint as they document the rampant racism on display in certain parts of the Detroit police force and other authoritative units at this point in history-the point of it all being to show how quickly a single person's life can change, how much their existence can be altered, and how no other human being should have the right to have this type of power or authority over another's future. Introducing a plethora of characters from that of different backgrounds and circumstances we get to know Smith's Larry and his younger counterpart Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), the two young white girls they attempt to court once arriving at the Algiers, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), the girls' good friend Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) and some of his posse that includes Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.), as well as a retired vet known as Greene (Anthony Mackie). It is when Detroit police, state police, and the National Guard descend upon the Algiers that things take a turn for the even worse-the likes of city officers Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O'Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor) essentially torturing these victims for the sake of their own amusement with only a thinly veiled justification holding their interrogation together.
The thing with Bigelow's film is that once it begins, it doesn't stop. It is relentless in its abrasiveness, but rightfully so. Only giving respite from the horrors we see unfold and the tension we hold in our kneecaps for a clear majority of the experience when the film enters its third act and becomes something of a courtroom drama to provide a kind of contextualization to the events that have preceded it. The standoff in the Algiers is the centerpiece of the film though, and the tension it holds for as long as it holds it is unreal. Bigelow is unflinching in her depiction of the violence that occurs between the three police officers the story homes in on, but this is all in service of an idea that Boal seems to be chasing and attempting to materialize from the moment Smith's Larry Reed is introduced as a somewhat cocky, but undeniably passionate performer whose only dream is to be able to get on stage and showcase his groups talent in front of Motown producers. This dream is thwarted when the audience is asked to disperse due to the rioting outside making its way to the front steps of the theater. As a quarter of the group The Dramatics, Larry as well as Fred become separated from the rest of their group and decide to flee to the Algiers until the fighting blows over. It is in this centerpiece of the movie where Larry and Fred become the central focus of a corrupt police investigation that Larry and the others alongside him have their humanity stripped away in a fashion where none of them will ever be the same, but kind of most notably that Larry will never again be that eager young man who only wants to be on stage to fulfill his own ambitions no matter the cost. This incident in which we see Poulter's despicable Krauss physically and mentally torture and exhaust Larry, Fred, Julie, Karen, Carl, Aubrey, and Greene among others is made to repulse; it is made to paint a picture of the power trip entitled protectors can take on and instead become the predators of those who should be relying on them for the exact opposite. Bigelow's camera never stopping long enough to give a sense of calm, but more the arrogance of the officers so unbelievable and the submission of the victims so infuriating you want to explode sitting in your comfy theater chair-the visceral quality the movie expels making it feel like anything but. As “Detroit” explodes with conflict, tension, and anger in every scene, the pulse of the film beating as consistently and as rhythmically as James Newton Howard's score we are unflinchingly wrapped up in the harrowing events that are taking place in front of us. What makes “Detroit” so special is that this is not only a film about police brutality or about depicting violence against black men for the sake of exploitation or a blunt reminder of why movies like this are necessary if not enjoyable, but “Detroit” is also a film that very skillfully layers in the unseen and unmentioned complexities of each of the characters involved-every scenario bringing a new coat to the table and introducing other perspectives we might not have previously considered. In this regard, “Detroit” is a masterwork in conveying genuine emotion and evaluations of our existence through the visual medium, but as a statement on where we've been, where we are, and where we're going it feels like a piece that should be as awe-inspiring for its technical approach as it is the emotions it invokes.
In deciding what and who to focus on Bigelow and Boal paint as broad a picture being as precise as they can and this works in their favor when the objective is seemingly to evoke an emotional response from those viewing the film. That the film does evoke a response at all be it one of sadness, anger, or disappointment says much for the construction of the two and half hour epic and the techniques utilized to bring such disturbing events and individual moments to the screen, but the effectiveness of the final product no doubt owes just as much to the performances and the actors fulfilling these undoubtedly difficult tasks as it does the methods in which they are captured. To summarize, “Detroit” is something of a perfect storm of craft and method. Smith stealing the show as his character of Larry Reed comes to take on the most stunning arc in terms of revelatory moments in the wake of his experiences. In both Boal’s decision to show the energy of the young man Larry was prior to the events at the Algiers, to showing his temperament and actions during, and then of course to the devastating repercussions that experience leave on the life he never planned on having, but ended up living because of that single, fateful night both the screenwriter and Smith deliver a portrait of how these larger, societal events came down to affecting a single soul while simultaneously including those necessary bigger picture elements. Poulter, who most will recognize for his comedic turn in We’re the Millers, pulls off a terrifying and genuinely demented performance as he taps into a frame of mind that seems to truly believe that the actions he is taking are for the betterment of the black community-that this riot is the result of the police not doing their jobs as well as they should have. It’s as if Poulter’s Krauss believes there are good, wholesome, well-intentioned black people out there, but that none of them live in Detroit for as soon as he sees a looter he is running after them not hesitating to shoot them in the back. The worst type of villains is those who believe their actions are justifiable and Krauss, who sways the overly impressionable Demens and impresses Flynn enough to embrace his own racist tendencies, believes whole-heartily that what he is doing will for one reason or another benefit the city and protect the people who deserve to be protected. This, of course, is from the perspective of a guy who makes negative assumptions about every single black person he comes in contact with, even that of Dismukes (John Boyega), a security officer that stumbles upon the scene at the Algiers and is put in the unfortunate situation of having to try and bring a balance to the situation and the measures Krauss is taking to try and elicit a confession out of those he has in custody.
Krauss was no doubt a man born into a line of thought that was literally black and white and that perception has failed to adapt despite times changing and his mind supposedly evolving. Boal attempts to give even Krauss, the undeniable antagonist of the piece, added layers of context to possibly understand him better, but this still leads back to the fact he is, by all accounts, a racist who is ignorant for being just that. As for Boyega’s Dismukes this is a man who we see caught in the crossfire and while the marketing might have played up Boyega’s involvement he is largely a supporting player whose role is utilized to comment on the unnecessary line black people in positions of authority had to walk during that time. That said, Dismukes is based on a real person and the events chronicled in the film are seemingly true to life in that there is of course little justice to be had from a system that is largely flawed, but has become too big to turn back on now. If there was any thought by remorseful white people in the audience, such as myself, that there might be some redemption in the idea cops like Krauss were more an exception than the rule the third act of the film is here to clarify that no, the problem was and still is much bigger than a few bad apples. Change is always inevitable it’s just a question of how and when the film reminds us in its opening scroll and while “Detroit” may not be as tightly scripted as Boal’s previous effort or as insightful as the writer and director’s Best Picture-winner this is a film more searing and arguably more devastating than either “Zero Dark Thirty” or “The Hurt Locker” as in those films there was at least understandable cause for the violence and anger. In “Detroit” we see people allowing and inflicting harm on those doing no harm and it’s difficult to comprehend that we live in a world where what this could happen never mind the fact it’s still happening today.