And the Real Thing is the Best Thing Yet

Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2017)

Some time ago I was doing some research into the history of Detroit, and read that this was an integrated city with little disturbances over racial lines. It was the heart of the American motor industry and then a music industry, which have since collapsed and moved elsewhere. Julien Temple’s extraordinary documentary Requiem for Detroit (2009) documents its collapse and attempts at reconstruction. Having done further research, I’m not sure what the author was talking about — and this film centres on a reconstruction of a devastating event at the heart of a disturbance, at the Algiers Hotel.

An illegal drinking venue is raided by largely white police men, arresting largely African American patrons. This leads to unrest on the streets, which the film labels a riot, over a number of days. An aspiring male vocal group, The Dramatics, have their performance cancelled just before they are due to go on, thanks to the curfew, and they try to find their way home. Larry Reed and Fred Temple book a room at a motel and try to pick up two white tourists, Julie Ann and Karen, who introduce them to Carl Cooper and Aubrey Pollard. Pollard fires a starter gun out of the window, attracting the National Guard, the police — including Philip Krauss, who has shot someone dead in the back — and a security guard, Melvin Dismukes. Krauss starts interviewing every one left in the motel, with sadistic glee, staging mock executions. Then things go really wrong. When the night is over, the white cops and Dismukes are put on trial, with an all-white jury.

There has been a certain amount of fuss about whether this was a story that Bigelow, as a white director can tell this story. It would be interesting to see a John Singleton or Spike Lee version, of this film, but cautious Hollywood rarely gives big budgets to African American directors. Equally, they rarely do so to women — Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight and Wonder Woman being rare exceptions — so perhaps we should celebrate a woman being given a $34 million budget, although that is not huge. Bigelow is the only woman to win a best director Oscar, so perhaps has the chops to swing the gig for an African American director and act as producer; on the other hand she has had a lot of flops, in the arcane world of film accountancy her films are rarely in profit, making about three times the budget at best. At the moment, Detroit is a flop.

It is not an easy film to navigate, as we take a long time to get to the motel and then we have the aftermath to deal with. All of this is necessary. There are a bewildering range of characters in the first half hour, before the set piece kicks in, and this gives us a portrait of a city in crisis, if not the mundane every day life. The context of unrest in 1967 Detroit is sketched in with drawings and captions — the move of workers from the south to work in the car industry and the slow exodus of the white population (the words “white flight” are not used). We don’t get the fall out from Jim Crow laws, the Civil War and slavery, but that was more in the south anyway. We are told that change is inevitable, although it is not clear when or how. Bigelow slips between documentary footage and reconstruction.

In a sense the film is all reconstruction; we are told that it is not clear what happened, even with court testimony and the memory of survivors. Characters will be compressed into composites, dialogue will be invented, people were on their own. This matters because this is an event of political importance — but the story has to be told. There is violence, but we can’t be sure it is the right violence. Above all, we can never quite get into the heads of Krauss and his fellow cops — of what made them racist. Or to behave as they did. Their interrogation is tactical, but we don’t know who set that up.

Sometimes there is a sense of punches being pulled. John Boyega as Dismukes is a Good Man, and no doubt he is, but I wonder whether the actor is in danger of becoming a British Denzel Washington, a guarantor of uprightness. Equally, there are moments of good deeds by white people just in case we have wanted to insist #notallwhitemen. It is telling that the two central characters are played by British actors. Was it too much of a hot potato?

Bigelow has always been a director of contradictions, a female director who had tried to inhabit supposedly male genres, more likely to create meaty roles for men than women (but don’t forget Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel (1987)). Her background is in painting and film theory, with auteurial signatures of night shoots and neon lights, often viewed through smoke, but she has worked with and was married to James Cameron. She has worked in art house and television, with a small role in the extraordinary intersectional sf film Born in Flames, but she’s also had big budget. Repeatedly she makes radical films that end up with a whiff of neoconservatism — her vampire film Near Dark (1987) blurs boundaries of sexuality and gender, but white patriarchy and home wins out; her sf Strange Days (1995) has a female African American protagonist, but a white old man saves the day. Detroit was inspired by events in Ferguson, but the dots of true integration still not being achieved are not filled in.

I think this is a film to be seen — even if it’s not a film to like or enjoy — but perhaps on the level that a flawed attempt to tell a story is better than not to tell it. But perhaps the canvas of a thirteen part television series might have been more suitable.