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Film review: Detroit (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. Script: Mark Boal)

22 August 2017


One of the possible reasons why this film was pre-released in Belfast is that political films that are based on real events tend to do well here. It is understandable then that this last preview showing of a film that takes as its subject an incident from the riots that took place fifty years ago in Detroit in 1967 - would still have a respectable turnout.

Will Poluter who has the lead role as officer Krauss has spoken about his participation in the film. Apparently, it was a tough shoot as the camera needs to see fear in the faces of his co-actors and they must react to him as if they are in the presence of a great evil.  Doing this over a sustained period of time for days, tested the actors and their spirits (they report having to hug each other after each take to bring themselves back to normal). So where have they been and where did Bigelow and her team take them?

In the cinema of Kathryn Bigelow men in uniform are on a mission to prove something which has to do with them accepting that the mission is more important than they are. The drama flows from what happens despite this. Some of the characters surprise us with their abundant sense of humour and (rare) acts of compassion. This is the traditional and powerful approach that we find in Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty and dates back to the very beginning of modern cinema itself. In this famous chase scene from Bigelow’s Point Break we also experience brilliance of technique and editing:

The expert use of steady-cam and intimate close ups are combined so well here it makes us forget that the undercover cop (Keanu Reeves) had the option to warn and then shoot to injure - so why did it happen this way? It was done that way because the central point of the scene is to show that the surfer-bank robber (Patrick Swayze) is actually his buddy. So our undercover cop is conflicted enough not to shoot him. Now put yourself in the position of a young black male watching this scene who has had experience of the LA's finest.  What he will tell you is his own personal experience and his enjoyment of the film are unrelated. He simply doesn’t expect cinema to be a political medium that would relate to his own life because, as all the great guru's of cinema keep telling us - cinema exists to simply tell stories.

That is also true of black cinema. When the black director Spike Lee portrays the riots and looting that occurred in New York City in the summer of 1977 in Summer of Sam, he uses the riots as a backdrop for his main story about a young man's genius for life at a time of hopelessness and horror. But audiences expressed disappointment that the film didn't give a more in-depth view. Chief among the points made was the fact that the New York city riots of '77 were multiracial. Therefore white and black cinema goers expected at least some of the films' stories to be about why there was white participation in the looting and the shooting. And its a same story with Bigelow's Detroit – which has only white men in uniform and no white rioters, looters or snipers. Why does this keep happening?

The answer is that today, we do not have a political cinema that is capable of the task of doing justice to historical representation (pace Stonewall). That said Bigelow’s Detroit is still worth looking at and into, as it is clearly an exception to the contemporary rule and glut of comic book films. So it was understandable that a politically interested audience had high hopes for it. However, the film should not be judged on that basis but on what were the ideas and approaches that influenced it and why they proved to be limitations.

Detroit Trailing The Story

For those unfamiliar with the killings that took place at the Algiers motel during the Detroit riots in 1967 the trailer appears to promise to show how and why, a black security guard Melvin Dismukes played by John Boyega, was wrongly tied to the killings:

John Boyega's acting skill strongly suggests here that the film will tell the story of the attempt to frame Dismukes by the police and what he will do about it. Therefore, rightly or wrongly one of the main reasons why the film was able to create an audience, was on the expectations about Dismukes own individual story and how Boyega, (an award winning actor), would accomplish this:

When Melvin Dismukes says in the trailer he had agreed to accompany the police to the police station to “tell them what happened”; telling us - the audience - “what happened”, is what we would reasonably expect from Bigelow and her production team. On this basis the audience found and went to the film. In what follows I shall attempt to explain why this audience didn’t find what they were looking for.

The Opening Moments

In the opening moments of the film we see a short presentation on black migration from the south to the northern industrial cities. This would be the normal way that Public Service Broadcasting would begin a documentary about the riots. The film then cross cuts news footage with Bigelow and Boal's reconstruction of the raid on the black club known as The Blind Pig.

The Raiding Party

There are various approaches and techniques both conventional and unconventional that can be used or employed to give an account of a real or imaginary event. So to use disorientation in the camera work says one thing about what we see and then to stop using it and use traditional camera framing techniques says another. And to contrast both one with or against the other, has an effect on how a scene or a person is perceived by an audience and can also effect any ethical or political investment that an audience might bring to the film. The disorientation is clearly there in the film for a reason. Unlike the news camera, the cinematography is trying to show what it felt like to be a “participant observer”
“in the crowd”.

The reason why this does not work is because most humans have two eyes not one. Therefore what we experience is at best hazy and at worst – jostling shadows.

Traditionally, the scene on the pavement outside the club would have been filmed over a number of nights with a combination of cameras on different rigs that follow or focus on leading characters so as to give them a presence in the film. The use of steady-cam here certainly saved many thousands of dollars and recording the exterior shots in next to no light also saved money.

Maybe there was simply not enough funds to give a black Vietnam Vet or those who arranged his welcome home party a “back story”. Things don't improve when he and his friend stand on the sidewalk waiting to be carted off with the others by the police. The camera, focused as it is from an overhead viewpoint down onto the two actors causes a flattening of the perspective - so much so that we only notice the red flash on the Vet's uniform not what he says (the sound mix is also unclear here) or his significance ( a black Vietnam vet was shot and killed in a Detroit public park in front of his pregnant wife the month before the raid).

Like it or not the technical approach adopted here, also has political consequences.  Because of the camera's quick succession of foreshortened viewpoints, we were also not given time to notice or recognize or even care about the significance of the club owner - Bill Scot’s II role or the new community organizing he and his son – Bill Scott III had been doing out of the building. Again one has to ask, was the abandoning of this important political context also due to budget constraints or was it simply a production decision?  Probably a combination of both. But I say again this is a cinematic portrayal of a political event by means of non-political cinema. That's why the opening news footage appears to be so out of place here, but not in the way that you might think.

It certainly doesn’t do the film any good as it manages to show the news footage as more readable, authoritative and therefore “informative” than the footage shot by Bigelow's cameras. A good example of this is how we experience the appearance of the Governor in the film.

For the generation of news-documentary audiences that watched a public official taking a seat before reporters at a moment of political crisis, signified not only - “this is the official view”, but also created the expectation of what usually followed – the well tuned researched comment from a narrator or commentary from an appropriate reporter or person of interest. Just as we accept the Governor to have depth or gravitas, we have come to expect that what should follow it must try to match the official view in import and significance. And as this does not and can not happen in the film, most of the audience will understandably be confused and or disorientated.

Where Are You Going With This?

If the film is not a political account we now must ask: what is it and where is it taking us? Because the vets, the crowd and the cops and their victims later at the motel, are not in Detroit but acting out of well established Hollywood places. And some of the moves it takes from there are that well worn they become unintentionally comic. For as the camera is busily swirling around the anonymous zero dark one hundred on the street, we suddenly cut to two cops having problems breaking into the back entrance of the club. The camera work settles down and we see the cops try to get a grip of the situation: “Captain we can't get in the back. You're going to have to take them [the suspects] out the front.”

“Ah..” we are supposed to think, it was this “mis-step” by the police (who were, “only trying to do their job”), that could have been an important causal factor. This is a pure Dave Chappelle moment. The more likely explanation was that the owner Bill Scott II and his son Bill Scott III had had enough of being regularly raided by the police, so they heavily chained and padlocked that back entrance of their club to stop the cops from using it as their monthly entry an exit point!

“Did You See That ?.!”

The above phrase is one of the more hilarious lines of mimicry from a Chappelle routine about police violence. It is also scripted by Boal as part of our introduction to Will Poulter, who has the dubious honour in this picture of playing officer Krauss the Master of Ceremonies at the Algiers motel.

At this point Boal's writing appears not to be about anything much. Certainly not about 1967 or Detroit but gives us an indication of Boal's role as a trickster from the twilight zone.  This explains why when we first see Krauss he appears not to be a police officer on patrol at all, but a concerned civilian, who is having a conversation with his buddy in which there is the continual expression of regret at why white society has caused this situation (i.e. the rioting) to occur. Then the next minute they are revealed as police officers in hot pursuit of a black suspect. Boooom!! the suspect is blasted with a shotgun in the back, but still manages to climb over a fence and escape.

“Did You See That ?!” the Poulter-Kruss says to his buddy to justify his shooting of the suspect, meaning that the suspect appeared to be more athletic than he thought! (shades of Fort Apache The Bronx). Poulter-Kruss is miffed that he was held back by his buddy who answers “your not supposed to shoot suspects.”

Where had I seen this combination before, I kept asking myself? Something that involves ineffectual cops and two cop buddies that appear to be in a false dilemma every time we see them and where the story is some how constructed out of their moral turpitude? No sooner had I realized that what I had been watching, had the look and feel of the type of action and characters that could have been found in Hill Street Blues - did I have to move on and confront the Poulter-Kruss problem. For if the majority of the cops in this movie were rejects from Hill Street Blues, where was Poulter-Kruss from?

Answer: the land of Steven King.

We're Not Going To Take IT

That is the only plausible explanation I can offer for what we experience next and for what follows at the Motel. Despite the Poulter-Kruss's disappointment at not being able to kill the suspect, it gives him an epiphany and he begins to glow like some uncanny alien wunderkind. Perversely comic and murderous at the same time - he is Steven King's IT without the makeup. And as we all know the weirdness of King's characters appears to shield them from reality and also from those who try to stop them. And this is what happens back at the station where a more believable Hill Street Blues character, this time from homicide, calls Poulter-Kruss into his office and says that he has been identified as the shooter of the suspect, (who has since died) and he is to face charges. But by this time we know that the guy from homicide can't stop Poulter-Kruss. It's not just because we know that cops get away with murder but that the real problems of the script cease to have relevance for Boal as he is in the zone – the horror zone that is.

For in the horror zone there are no rules only fabulation. So the sense that the charges simply disappear from the film is what we half expect anyway as the monster that is Poulter-Kruss – proceeds to eat the script. So if we have a monster, we must have the innocents abroad: enter the soul band and Soul-boy who waste no time in showing us how innocent they really are – to such an extent that we forget why they are there at all.  Everyone who was at their show has done the sensible thing and gone home and so must the soul-boy and his closest friend.

But they can't get home, so they stop by what seems to be an oasis (the Algiers Motel).  In the motel the friend wants more bromance “look into my eyes” he tells the soul-boy, “you are going to make it!” You don't need to have a subscription to old Hollywood Tv Tropes to know that if you show man-to-man affection that this means a death sentence. But Soul-boy want's to pursue other romantic possibilities, so they go out to try to find some women.

A classic folk-tale scene now ensues: the innocents enter the forbidden garden of earthly delights. We see people drinking, people swimming in the pool and two young females having an all round good time who are looking for company. Soul-boy's buddy is nervous about who the young women are and what it would mean to go with them but they delay further intimacy and agree to go for something to eat.

The indication of what is about to happen in the motel's annex, starts with a leer from another ogre, who casts a jealous eye over the soul-boy and his buddy. He's not happy about their arrival so he embarks on some foolhardy bravado with a toy gun.

Now I am quite sure something did happen involving a toy gun at the Algiers Motel in 1967 to cause it to be fired, which in turn drew attention from troops and law enforcement.  But Bigelow and Boal give us the sound and the fury and confusion for another reason I believe, and that is to cover the holes in their script. For if the gun here is supposed to be real – real enough for the ogre to expertly improvise and “kill” another character with it, then someone other than those involved in the mock killing would have known about it - as the routine is too well done for it to have happened for one time only. Having done the gag the ogre has to be re-primed and set off again this time to ensure that, “it's for real” and that now we will see those in the room in danger. So the ogre begins firing out the window first single shots, followed by rapid fire. If that toy gun could be fired that way normally, then it is surely the most reliable and versatile cap gun ever made!

There is also another more obvious hole in the script which would be of concern to any audience and that is the question: who in their right mind would start shooting at police and troops during a riot with a cap gun? Answer, someone who is not in their right mind! But that is too subtle a point for Boal and Bigelow. Here, in what appeared to be a safe haven, is simply a lair for another beast, whose function is to scare and not to have any meaningful character or identity. The ogre did his best to frighten everybody but he is nothing compared to what another particular monster we know can do.

Call Out The Poulter-Kruss 'Cause The Revolution's Not Here

Despite the ogre's frantic attempts to cause a ruckus there is a decent interval before the National Guard and State Troopers open fire because you see they are not part of the film's dark horde that is causing the mayhem – they are here to help and to follow protocol.  And that is when they call the Poulter-Kruss. For it is his job, not theirs, to question suspects and make arrests. Poulter-Kruss tries to get an update from our boys but they don't know much about anything and behave like spare social workers at a domestic incident. Even if they are “straight off base” and not actors, the guys under the arc lights act as if they were the entertainment at a charity fund raiser and not been asked to appear in the middle of one of the most violent events in America’s post war urban history. And why, may I ask, are these guys so well lit by arc lights, when we have seen them so expertly blast out the street lighting?

Attention: Bigelow and her production team are making a movie not history - and a horror fantasy movie at that. So all that arc light is there for a reason. It is the white light of the Shining, it is the blinding light of alien transformation.

Watching Will Poulter's transformation here is an experience in itself. For as we focus on Poulter's skill at playing the monster that is Krauss he makes us forget just how shallow Boal's writing has become. So when he blasts the ogre with a shotgun, we are not supposed to feel anything only to accept that Krauss is an unstoppable force. This all has to do with what people who write video games call “affordances” - so for example when an arch appears in a game it invites you to go through it. Similarly, when a (minor) character behaves extremely recklessly as the ogre did with the cap gun, then this points in Hollywood cinema to a certain violent death. But the actor who played the ogre indicates in a close up to Bigelow's camera, with irony and regret on his face, that he is not happy being the fall guy in this picture for no good reason.

I will not dwell on the routine at the house of horror about who is in what room pretending to shoot, then not pretending to shoot a suspect. Because something close to this may indeed have happened. But the culminating moment of this section of the film does reveal the truly bizarre nature of this production. A suspect and a cop go into a room and the cop behaves as if he is about to say, “this is going to hurt me more than its going to you” – Outside on the landing when the Krauss tells him that killing wasn't in the plan, cop buddy gives a priceless reaction: “Aaaah, ..I wasn't supposed to shoot him - only scare him aaaahhhh...?”

Yes – what are those cop buddies going to do now that they've actually done what they pretended to do? But the weird pretence is there for a reason: it is to give the audience a sense of extended awe of Will Poulter's psychopath who must now do some more blood letting - but this time as the crazed - yet compassionate Poutler-Kruss. The idea being that the suspects are let go as long as the Poulter-Kruss is satisfied that they would keep their mouths shut. How he does this is to ask each of the suspects a riddle. Only one of the suspects answers wrongly and is blasted – Soul-boy's buddy. But the others do manage to escape and so must we.


That's the end of the film proper for what we experience next is not really part of a film at all. What we see instead are edited highlights from a bad soap opera that looks back at “last week’s episode”. However, the court room stitch-up that we eperience is not “a rush to judgment” but the leaps and hoops the script and production must go through to get to the end that it want's to give us: Soul-boy says his piece in court and now he must survive by singing even if Bigelow and Boal manage to depict him as soullessly as they do.

Hollywood and The Lives That Matter

That is the end also of a this review of the film entitled “Detroit”. But what if Boal and Bigelow's good intentions to make a political film were taken seriously and the film was reviewed on that basis - what would happen? A review taking this approach has been published. At Roger a young black columnist - and it is no exaggeration to say this - found the film a traumatic experience as she writes:

Watching "Detroit," the latest film directed by Katherine Bigelow and penned byMark Boal, I hit a breaking point I didn’t realize I had. I was disturbed so deeply by what I witnessed that I left the theater afterward in tears.

It wasn’t the relentless violence inflicted upon black bodies or the fiery devastation of the riots ripping apart Detroit but the emptiness behind these moments that got under my skin.

Angelica-Jade Bastien, who wrote the review, ends by saying that the film casts “an unwavering eye” over the violence done to black bodies yet has “nothing to say” about it.  But her distress is also about something else: that in the era of Trump and so many very publicly broadcast racist and police killings - the consciousness of the black population and consciousness in general - has changed. After Charlottesville that is even more the case - as the KKK walk the streets “without the sheets” and neo-NAZI's perform stormtrooper raids into public parks and universities. The time for debate is over the battle lines are now clear. Film makers can’t wait for Hollywood to wake up to the fact that the lives lost to racist violence in the past and now - mattered. The way is now open for Angelica-Jade Bastien and her generation to give us a cinema that puts their ethical investment not into Hollywood but into their own films.

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