The movie Detroit is strong and accomplished. It resembles its director Katherine Bigelow. She is now 65 years old but has the figure of a young woman. It is easy to imagine her working out in the gymnasium, her willpower and intense application attempting the impossible, something that will separate her from normal mortals and help her to be like the action heroes that dominate her movies. I suspect that speculation is sexist but it is how I imagine Bigelow, pounding gymnasium equipment when not making movies. Detroit is hard-hitting and visceral. Those expecting an intelligent analysis of race relations in the USA or even the complex social problems behind the riots of 1967 will be disappointed. The title of the film is disingenuous. Detroit exists as a companion piece to The Hurt Locker rather than a study of a city. It is a film about men in conflict. To reveal the problems that exist between the races in the USA requires quieter moments and, though they exist in Detroit, it is there that the movie is less accomplished.
The Hurt Locker was released in 2008 and received critical acclaim and awards. Katherine Bigelow is now considered a major director. Detroit, like The Hurt Locker, needs to be watched on a large cinema screen with loud surround sound. Bigelow is a master of form. Watch The Hurt Locker on TV today and it is difficult to discover what excited people at the time. The set pieces are well done but the characters and themes are second-hand. The alienated male that is addicted to war is a steal from Malraux and Hemingway, and the steady soldier who cracks without warning appeared in the form of Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High.
Detroit is based on a real event. The back cover of The Algiers Motel Incident by John Hersey has a precise definition of what happened. ‘Responding to a telephoned report of sniping, the police group invaded the Algiers Motel and interrogated ten black men and two white women, none of them were armed, for an hour. By the time the interrogators had left, three men had been shot and the others, including the women, had been beaten.’ Although author John Hersey understands that the policemen were more than uncomplicated monsters he is unequivocal about what happened. This was routine police behaviour that led to excessive consequences because the police were frustrated by an explanation that was beyond their grasp and by suspects too terrified to articulate properly what had happened. There is something of that in the movie but it feels fudged. Both white prejudice and black grievance are articulated. There will be Afro-Americans who will watch Detroit and feel that integration with white oppressive bullies is impossible. But white racists will also locate justification for their hostility towards what they regard as an alien race or, as one policeman says in the film, ‘you people’.
Amongst the ten people held in the motel by the police was Roderick Davis who at the time was the lead singer of The Dramatics. The incident scarred Davis, and he abandoned his career as a recording artist. The experience of Davis is important to the film but for most of the film the activities of Afro-Americans appear to be restricted to drinking alcohol, chasing whores, gambling and rioting. It is unfortunate that when we do see Afro-Americans work they make music and dream of escape. This is balanced at the end when the families of the victims prepare for the court case and there are a couple of scenes of Afro-Americans doing ordinary jobs. But by then it is too little and too late. The notion of exclusive Afro-American hedonism has been perpetuated. The policemen involved in the Algiers Motel incident were acquitted. In the film this appears to be the consequence of a well-meaning but flawed legal system too easily circumvented by smart lawyers. This interpretation contains a glib oversight. The jury took just thirteen minutes to return a not guilty verdict. Three people were dead, and nine witnesses including two white women testified to being beaten. It is believable that there may not have been enough evidence to convict but thirteen minutes does not even allow for regret and sympathy.
Katherine Bigelow is exceptional at taking actors who are not considered charismatic and have them carry a film. Her fast editing style helps but she is also good with performers. She made a star of Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker and somehow prevented Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze making Point Break deadly dull. John Boyega and Will Poulter are British actors. Boyega appeared in the recent Star Wars success. He plays Melvin Dismukes the security guard who attempts to be the peacemaker between the police and the suspects. Boyega is marvellous, a fabulous mix of decency, strength and wary curiosity. In the endnotes to the film we discover that Dismukes left Detroit because of death threats. The endnotes do not mention that those threats came from the Black Panthers. This censorship, like that of the thirteen minute verdict, underplays the conflict that exists in American society. In a dramatic and violent film such timidity and sensitivity are unwarranted. It feels like someone was thinking about box office takings and was keen not to alienate the elements within the audience. The performance of 23 year old Will Poulter makes the film interesting. He plays a less than capable policeman who wanders into a situation that is beyond his control. Desperate to maintain authority he relies on the dark side of his character. The British understand insecurity and anxiety, and Poulter relishes playing a blustering adolescent obliged to be tough and nasty. Rounded characterisation is welcome and important but most people will leave the film and wonder just how these gauche policemen managed to produce the chaos and violence that happened. Those curious should read The Algiers Motel Incident by John Hersey.
Limitations aside the strength of Detroit is that it feels real and authentic. The soundtrack is great and any musical score that opens with I Know I’m Losing You by The Temptations deserves respect. Informed by real events the movie resists the next steps that we expect from melodrama or typical action movies. Melvin Dismukes has strength and decency but he is not heroic. He is unable to mitigate the carnage. The policeman Philip Kraus stumbles into his violence and sadism. The film has two great visual images. After the riots have begun the National Guard and their tanks arrive. They look like what they are, a conquering army. A Marxist determinist would argue that the history of the human race has been shaped by three pervasive victories. These are the establishment of a hierarchy by an oppressive elite, the dominance of men over women and the imperial exploration that allowed the white race to conquer foreign lands and their people. Watch that tank arrive on the city streets of Detroit and it is clear that slavery may have been outlawed but that those initial imperial victories continue to shape our societies. The same conquerors not only still run everything. They are recognisable.
The second image is no less powerful. After the incident in the Algiers Motel, Roderick Davis and the rest of The Dramatics visit the recording studio where they will cut their first record. Davis sees a white man in the recording booth and pulls away. He decides to quit a business where white people will have influence. The image of the white man behind the glass panel is memorable. We understand and experience the paranoia of Davis. I am not sure how Bigelow did it but at that moment, seeing the penetrating and silent stare of the white man, I was disturbed by nothing more than the sight of a white face. Most people watching the film will remember that man as sinister and threatening. It affected me that way, and I grew up on the romance of Sam Phillips recording Howling Wolf, Junior Parker and Elvis Presley.
Before the main film begins there is a cartoon that explains some of the history before the riots occurred. The written text in the cartoon alleges that Afro-Americans travelled north to seek better jobs and civil rights. This is not quite right. Some Afro-Americans would have had this motive. The flight from the South was, though, a consequence of mechanisation in agriculture. Jobs were lost, and both Afro-Americans and white Americans headed north. Country music may not have travelled as well as the blues but hillbilly culture can be found in the North East. But that is a detail. The white race created a holocaust after they moved into Africa. It is estimated that 12 million slaves were transported across the Atlantic. White or establishment guilt and redress have been inadequate. In every social and economic measurement in the USA and the UK, Afro Americans and black Britons have inferior opportunities, prospects and rewards. In the United States the median wealth of white households is thirteen times greater than that of Afro-American households. The number thirteen is important because it is, of course, the number of minutes that it took a jury to acquit three policemen who thought it unnecessary to report neither the three dead bodies that they left behind in the Algiers Motel nor the injuries to the survivors they battered and bullied for an hour.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.