Kathryn Bigelow returns to direct Detroit, a period drama set during the 12 Street Riot of 1967; Lee reviews.
If a symptom to systematic oppression reaching its boiling point is rioting, what spurns the first brick being thrown? Detroit argues that it is not simply deep-rooted rebellion, nor is it sheer aggression from the aggressors, but basic chaos – meaningless actions triggered by deep-set anger then informed by miscommunication and balanced by nothing.
It makes a sharp impression early on, with hovering unfocused camerawork and dialogue that never gives its characters more than a single shred of information to work with, and sets the stage far better than any cultural cross-examination could for the events it wishes to portray. Yet while delving nose-first into an experience of what it was to be a fly on the wall during the Algiers Hotel incident of 1967 does grant an informed audience member some insight into the whys and hows surrounding the attitudes involved, as with most period films the scope struggles to be wide enough to really do everyone justice.
A gamed system in which the white police and detectives pull all the strings is truly under fire here, but that intense focus comes at the inevitable muted role of any black characters maintaining any agency whatsoever, which, yes, does get the point across to an extent but, on the other hand, misses much of the strength involved in the spirit that sparked the riots in the first place.
Fifty years on then, the takeaway either becomes ‘how can this still be happening?’ (ala Black Lives Matter movement and the recent uptick in police killings of African-Americans in the US) or, sadly, ‘all is still as hopeless then as it is now’. Worse yet, it could be read as ‘look at how much better comparatively we have it now/we should be grateful’ to those unaware of BLM, and that’s no risk worth taking.
Still, that’s today’s context; yesterday’s events are different, and hopefully tomorrow’s will be too, so we must try and see the film for what it is separately. What’s on show here touches on, occasionally, the attitudes black people have garnered to survive in a racist authoritarian state, and makes for a case study of how some work and some don’t, but ultimately they shouldn’t need them at all and that’s a good thing to zone in on.
Chaos succumbs to hope inevitably, an admirable if somewhat wishy-washy passing of the buck to the future generations that fails to capture the ire and urgency of recent films like Ava DuVernay’s 13TH or even Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. Still, with solid writing and dreadful tension start-to-finish, there’s more a chance that this will be taken in the right direction than the wrong, and since that indeed is a game a hope, perhaps Bigelow and Boal are on to something after all.