Some films shake us from our stupor by forcing us to confront difficult questions. But other films lure us into complacency with reductive, misleadingly simple answers.
This second category of films may tempt us to believe that social problems are either hopeless (i.e. there's nothing we can do to ever change things) or obsolete (i.e. there's nothing further that needs to be done). Some folks have accused Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit of being just that--misleading, oversimplifying, and reductive. Richard Brody of The New Yorker made some rather biting comparisons to The Birth of a Nation and The Passion of the Christ and ultimately even called Bigelow's film "a moral failure."
But I contend that the difference between these two categories (infuriatingly emboldening films versus simplistically stupefying ones) isn't always found in the images and sounds themselves, but rather in how we read and interpret them. I'm not saying that the author is dead and I'm not saying that artists have no responsibility to effectively and ethically explore their chosen topics. What I am saying is that films are often Rorschach tests, and it's up to us as responsible audience members to do the heavy hermeneutic lifting afterwards. Films reveal our assumptions, our biases, our traumas, and our failings. In a sense, our reaction is the text.
(A little more on that: I'm not trying to be fatalistic here, but maybe in 90-180 minutes the best you can hope to accomplish is starting a good conversation; a film cannot be the WHOLE conversation, and perhaps shouldn't try to be. You can't explore everything that needs to be explored. What you CAN do is begin to mine a concept, an event, a relationship, a problem, or a story--and invite your audience to think further. Detroit raises good questions and doesn't say much about the answers to those questions, but that closer examination, I'd argue, is primarily our job. Certainly, Bigelow's style is sometimes criticized for having a cold and nearly sociopathic Fincherian distance from its subject matter; I can see where that criticism comes from--it's unclear, for example, whether her earlier film Zero Dark Thirty condones or condemns torture--and I sympathize with the hesitation to applaud a white filmmaker for so unflinchingly chronicling [exploiting?] the brutalization of black bodies. But I think there's a difference between depiction and endorsement, and Bigelow's approach, to me, feels measured but not distanced.)
Okay, let's dig into the film itself:
Detroit is a terrifying, harrowing dramatization of the 12th Street Riot (of 1967, exactly fifty years ago this summer). Narratively speaking, it focuses on the Algiers Motel Incident (the events of which are covered by the film's entire second act). Thematically speaking, it focuses on corrupt law enforcement, brutally violent racism, and the failures of the American justice system. But visually speaking, it focuses on black bodies terrorized and brutalized by white cops.
Barry Ackroyd's cinematography is claustrophobic, nervous, and quite intimate with our subjects--almost always trapping their bleeding faces, darting eyes, and fidgeting hands in the frame with extreme close-up shots. The camera is handheld, but competent; that is, despite a little shakiness and wavering, you never get the insufferably dizzying sense of a "found footage" gimmick. The camera wants you to feel vulnerable and immediately present, but it doesn't necessarily want you to miss anything. It's clear where you're supposed to look. And just about every frame (at least in that middle hour) is unflinching in the face of awful, dehumanizing violence.
Structurally and tonally, Detroit is essentially a horror film. Sure, there are no ghosts, demons, witches, or other supernatural agents in the story, but it's a horror film nonetheless in the sense that its main purpose is to invoke a sense of dread, revulsion, and discomfort.
(And, again, Bigelow doesn't tell us what to do with our feelings of dread, revulsion, and discomfort. She just forces us to sit with them. Admittedly, the violence we see in Detroit only scratches the surface of larger sociopolitical and historical systems at play. But that superficiality--like Zero Dark Thirty's refusal to overtly comment on torture--needn't be hastily condemned as an argument for futility; maybe the film's inability or unwillingness to wrestle substantively with its context isn't necessarily a weakness.)
Now, let me take a moment to explain some context for this review. I started writing about Detroit in the second week of August. It's now early October and I still haven't published this piece. I keep picking at it. I've been busy, for sure--but another reason why I haven't finished is social/political context. Shortly after the film came out, a 20-year-old man named James Alex Fields, Jr. (who had a "fondness for Adolf Hitler" and who proudly rallied with white supremacists) intentionally rammed his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters in Charlottesville, killing an innocent woman named Heather Heyer. The President of the United States repeatedly blamed "both sides." I, like millions of Americans, was furious. And I still am.
This has to do with Detroit because the film aims to expose how racism manifests itself, in ways both blunt and subtle, through avenues both personal and systemic, in contexts both quiet and thunderous. The film, I'd argue, doesn't claim that racism is over, or that 1967 was white supremacy's last hurrah. There are plenty of ways to read the film such that it becomes a warning, a parallel for our time. This parallel became strikingly, painfully obvious in August 2017 when literal Nazis and Klansmen marched the streets of an American city, murdered a woman with a car, and got brushed off by our President as "fine people."
Detroit's interest in confronting serious social issues puts it in the company of other great horror films--e.g. Carrie (ostracization); The Babadook (trauma); Silence of the Lambs (the male gaze); Under The Skin (the sex industry); The Witch (dogmatic, fear-based theology).
But what makes Detroit stand out is that once the closing credits roll and the curtains close, all of the problems brought to light by the film are still right there, in your backyard. You don't get a break. Maybe the man who refills your popcorn bucket at the concession stand follows Richard Spencer on social media. Maybe the Uber driver who takes you home is going to a white nationalist rally next weekend. And on your trip from the theater, maybe you're driving past American cities who voted for a man who thinks murderous Nazis are "fine people."
This is why Detroit is such a difficult--and perhaps essential--film.
The nightmare doesn't end.