Cantata Detroit Critique Essay

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Broadly — perhaps too broadly — titled Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s grueling new film dramatizes an incident at the Algiers Motel on the third night of the 1967 Detroit riots. Forty-three people would die in those riots, among them a white cop — which I highlight only because it was reportedly foremost in the minds of policemen and the National Guard as tanks rolled through the streets. For the would-be peacekeepers, the fear was sniper fire, and when they believed that they heard it coming from the Algiers, they descended en masse on a bunch of black people (and, crucially, two white teenage girls) enjoying the summer night. What followed was a prolonged session of physical and psychological torture that left three black men dead.

It’s fair to say that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have a fraught relationship with torture. In their last collaboration, Zero Dark Thirty, they portrayed “enhanced interrogation” (in the affectionate parlance of the Bush II administration) as ghastly but fruitful. When their account came under attack (it was never proved that torture elicited useful intelligence on Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts), Bigelow responded by asserting, somewhat disingenuously given the context, “Depiction is not endorsement.” Now they’ve chosen to make a film in which torture at the hands of an occupying force is not merely useless but also psychotic and fascistic, a theater of cruelty in which pity is the first casualty and justice the last.

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I don’t mean to suggest that Detroit is self-serving, only that Bigelow and Boal have chosen to tell their story once again in a style that triggers our fight-or-flight instincts and with an eye for the mania of men under fire. The chief maniac is a white patrolman called Krauss (the victims’ names have not been changed, but some of the cops have pseudonyms), played by Will Poulter with arched, satanic eyebrows doing most of the heavy histrionic lifting. Early on, Krauss shoots a looter in the back as the man is scaling a chain-link fence. (The man bleeds out under a car, begging an old woman to phone his wife.) At the station, a detective informs Krauss he’ll be charged with murder and then — unaccountably — sends him back to the streets. Well, perhaps it’s not so unaccountable. When enlistment dwindled during the Iraq catastrophe, our military lowered the bar. In July 1967, Detroit needed uniforms on the street. It was burning.

The film opens as if it’s going to profile an entire city on the verge of incineration. An animated sequence adapted from a series of paintings by Jacob Lawrence depicts the post–WWI migration of southern blacks in search of auto-industry jobs and the ever-more crammed and dilapidated neighborhoods in which they were forced to live. The filmmakers dramatize the flash point for the ’67 riot: a police raid on a black after-hours club (a “blind pig,” in Detroitspeak) in which Vietnam vets (among others) are having a nice, peaceable time. The movie’s panoramic vantage doesn’t last beyond the first half-hour, though. We don’t see how the riots came to an end or the overall scope of the damage. For Bigelow and Boal, all narrative roads lead to — and from — the Algiers.

They reach the motel, narratively speaking, in the company of talented performers having a bad day. Larry Reed (Algee Smith) sings with the soul-music vocal group the Dramatics, known at the time for “Inky Dinky Wang Dang Doo,” and they’re about to hit the stage for a momentous show with Motown folks in attendance when a call comes to evacuate the theater. Their bus attacked by an angry crowd, the dejected Larry and his pal Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) see a shimmering oasis — the sign for the Algiers Motel, where people are partying like it’s 1966. The two men check in, have a drink, and flirt by the pool with two suburban white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever). But, as Martha Reeves and the Vandellas sang in the theater they’d just fled, there’s “nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.”

As a prelude to the main event, Boal and Bigelow devise a coup de théâtre that likely didn’t happen but is so brilliant that who cares? Larry, Fred, and the girls wind up in the room of a man named Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell, who was Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton), who stages a bizarre little drama for the assembled. He assumes the role of a white cop hassling a black civilian, played by a friend, and ends up shooting the guy when the shit gets too real. Except Carl’s gun is a starter pistol. It’s a prank. But something comes of it. The play awakens the raging imp in Carl, and he fires his fake gun out the window at the distant police and National Guard, whooping as they dive for cover. (“We should teach these pigs a lesson!”) Out of such playacting are tragedies born, and so the shit gets really real.

And so we arrive at the dark heart of Detroit, the sequence in which five black men (among them a Vietnam vet played by Anthony Mackie) and two white women face a wall while cops pace in back of them, punching and pistol-whipping their captives, demanding to know the location of the gun and identity of the shooter. You might expect the interrogation to end after five or ten minutes, but it goes on for what seems like hours, the camera on top of the characters as they plead and weep, the blows excruciatingly amplified. Members of the small audience with which I saw the film began to cry out halfway through, and I had to suppress an urge to yell, “Enough!” at the cops onscreen but also the filmmakers. It’s an open question whether employing fascistic technique in the service of an anti-fascist message creates a hatred of fascism — or just whips us up to see the bad guys bleed.

The three Detroit policemen don’t merely taunt and beat the people facing the wall. They separate and pretend to execute two of them to make the others talk. Focusing on the white girls in their short dresses gives the torturers their second wind and adds another dimension to their wrath. Our hopes are kindled by the hovering presence of other cops and Guardsmen, some of whom are plainly repulsed. But no one intercedes, including a black security guard, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who had attempted to ingratiate himself with the Guard and watches the event with quivering passivity. A State Police corporal tells his men he doesn’t like what he’s seeing and orders them to leave. In his 1968 book The Algiers Motel Incident, John Hersey calls the State Police departure “the most inglorious” chapter in the entire narrative. But there’s so much competition. (For the record, the cops’ real names were Ronald August, Robert Paille, and David Senak, the inspiration for Poulter’s Krauss.)

The question that Bigelow and Boal (like Hersey) leave hanging is why the people in that lineup didn’t simply tell the cops, “Yes, there were shots, but it was a starter pistol.” Which brings us back to the question of torture and why, one theory goes, it doesn’t usually work: People who are terrified shut down. To admit any knowledge might open them up to even more violent punishment.

Bigelow and Boal don’t bring much moral complexity to Detroit. They don’t illuminate the psyches of the cops or suggest the fundamental feeling of weakness that drives people to violence. They don’t shed much light on Dismukes’s inaction or subsequent thoughts about what he didn’t do. What Bigelow does — incomparably — is put us in that room with those people at that moment. She induces a feeling of powerlessness that’s beyond our capacity to imagine on our own, and she keeps it going through the courtroom scenes and closing credits and beyond, as we return to a world where the same scenario is playing in an endless loop. If nothing else, movies like Detroit are protection against forgetting, so that what happens in Detroit doesn’t stay in Detroit.

*This article appears in the July 24, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.


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