Director Kathryn Bigelow has been making a career of sorts out of films that show the effects of trauma on people. Whether it’s on the individual level of The Hurt Locker or the more societal level of Zero Dark Thirty, trauma creates a ripple effect that hurts and demoralizes people all over.
Her latest, Detroit, continues this line of work.
The year is 1967, and after a pictorial prologue explains how African Americans moved out of the South and into Northern cities looking for factory jobs, their lot in life hardly improved at all. As racial tensions racket things up in the 60s, perhaps it was only a matter of time when Detroit, a heavily segregated city, lit up like the powder keg like so many other American cities did. And then it happens when the largely white Detroit PD busts a “welcome home” party for a returning black Vietnam vet and has to parade all the arrests out through a very public front door, causing riots to start.
We should give Bigelow and her screenwriter collaborator Mark Boal a good deal of credit: they show the story as being much more complex than a simple good vs. evil scenario. There are people on both sides of the racial line causing problems and people on both sides looking to either stay alive or prevent things from getting worse. But the crux of the film is a tense moment where a black man fires a starting pistol out of a window of his hotel room at the National Guard and that brings in the Detroit PD, including one cop who’s already in quite a bit of trouble (ironically, this particular cop’s first lines were about how the police and the city were failing its minority residents). The round-up of several black men, plus two white women, leads to a highly tense stand-off. Where was the gun? Would any of the suspects get out of this alive? And would the police officers involved suffer any consequences if things got out of hand?
These incidents are all part of the public record, with some dramatization, though the events depicted may not be as well known today. The film itself may be all too relevant for some given the subject matter, even if the Detroit of 1967 still had the auto industry to provide jobs for the city’s residents, but events like this need to stay alive in the public memory so we never forget tragic incidents like this where the Detroit PD officers on-scene seemed out of control, the Michigan State Police walked away when it became clear that the incident in the motel was getting too ugly, and the National Guard on-scene can only passively watch as the situation deteriorates. The only individual who may be able to offer any sort of moral refuge for the night is a black security guard named Melvin Dismukes. As played by John Boyega, Melvin has a calm head on his shoulders and a strong sense of right and wrong.
That said, the advertising made the movie out as a starring role for Boyega. That’s not quite correct. He doesn’t anchor the film so much as offer an audience surrogate with limited screentime. A little editing another way and the role of primary surrogate could just as easily been played by Anthony Mackie in a small role as another Vietnam veteran who was likewise rounded up at the Algiers Motel and mistreated. Truth be told, the real star may be Algee Smith as aspiring singer Larry Reed. Smith’s Larry sees much more of what’s going on and is much more haunted by the effects of that night. His character has a much bolder dramatic arc than any of the others, and he is the one most openly affected by the night.
This is a serious movie with serious themes. I’m glad I went. Ten out of ten Motown performances.