Set during the 1967 Detroit riots, the simply-titled Detroit follows a substory that occurred within that larger, nationally reported framework. Taking the reins of the film is Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, who has forged a very successful career by translating historical events into film, having helmed Zero Dark Thirty as well as The Hurt Locker. Detailing an instance of police brutality and terrorism occurring under cover of the riots, Detroit has caused some controversy due to its topical nature. Its subject matter naturally also means that it’s not exactly good-natured escapism, but that’s what makes film so great: it has everything to offer, and it’s always a good idea to take in everything one can and expose oneself to the various facets of the art form and the multitude of human perspectives that comes along with them.
And that’s exactly what Bigelow does throughout Detroit: present numerous perspectives on an increasingly hot-button issue using one key real-life incident as her toolbox. When shots are seemingly fired at police from a window of the Algiers Motel in Detroit during the riots, law enforcement responds swiftly and brutally. Lines are crossed, protocol is abandoned, personal prejudice is wielded and disguised as justice, and, yes, lives are lost.
As I mentioned, Detroit is likely not a story that was chosen by coincidence to be told at this time. Police criminality towards minorities has been all-too common in recent years, with many people feeling the need to steadfastly choose a side, rather than maintaining a more appropriate grasp of the bigger picture. To say that there is no issue with inappropriate police behavior towards minorities is akin to announcing to the world one’s blissful ignorance. Unarmed black men have been recently shot by police while laying on the ground with their hands behind their head. And I still have people on my own Facebook feed posting memes that blame the victims. I have family that post those memes. It’s disheartening and monumentally embarrassing, making me want to hide my own face in public, for fear of being recognized as their kin.
On the other hand, the law enforcement officials responsible for this type of unforgivable behavior represent a small percentage of the total population. Most policemen and policewomen are admirable and upstanding people who don’t deserve to be held accountable for actions that are not their own and in which they have no involvement.
Bigelow does a fine job of maintaining this fair-minded perspective. The police involved in this given incident on this given night are detestable and morally corrupt. However, not all law enforcement figures are portrayed that way in the film. Similarly, not everyone on the receiving end of the police officers’ actions on that night in 1967 behave completely innocently (though most did). The incident that first attracts the attention of the officers is ill-advised, immature, and possibly illegal in its own right (I don’t know enough about the law to say, with complete certainty). That’s not to say that the perpetrator or their compatriots deserve what comes their way, but the cast of characters are all presented as complete, flawed human beings, with some obviously being worse than others.
The film almost plays as a horror-suspense movie, which seems like the obvious creative choice to make but still took me off guard. Beginning with a disorienting animated opening sequence, Bigelow introduces our cast to us in a respectfully-paced, but still moderately brisk fashion. The film never drags and each performer exudes charm and charisma, making it easy to invest in each character’s arc and their ultimate fate, whatever that may be. Once things go horribly south at the Algiers, the viewer is completely invested. The tension digs in and never lets go. I don’t think any other director would have presented the film in this way, but seeing as how it was very much a real-life horror film for those involved, it’s unquestionably appropriate. Using this approach, Bigelow creates a feeling of gut-wrenching empathy for the people we have gotten to know up to that point.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see several Academy Award nominations headed the way of Detroit, come early 2018. Of course, I don’t know what competition will be headed its way, later on in the year, but it will be tough to overlook the film, entirely. If anything is working against it, it would be its relatively-early release date. By the time we get to the onslaught of late-year Oscar bait, too many Academy members might have forgotten this one.
But the subject matter may hopefully prevent that from occurring. This isn’t the kind of movie one pulls out for a re-watch on a relaxing Saturday night, but it’s an important one that will theoretically introduce closed-minded people who can’t understand others’ perspectives to a reasonably palatable explanation for why minorities continue to be upset and afraid in modern society. These events occurred fifty years ago and, sadly, just when it felt like progress was occurring, the country regressed and here we are again. Detroit is my favorite of Bigelow’s films and is a gripping, poignant, powerful, and unfortunately necessary look at the ongoing struggle for racial equality in America.
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