Normally, this time of the year is dominated by the blockbuster. Films with budgets that are only dwarfed by their explosions rule the land, but the past few weeks have bucked that trend- at least a little bit.
For the second time, July has provided an oasis from the ridiculous action of the summer with another high profile dramatic film. Detroit joins Dunkirk as another drama to break up the mass of action and animated films that litter movie theaters right now. Well, an animated film still came out at the same time, but we’re not going to talk about that one.
Detroit takes place during the 1967 riots that took over areas of Detroit. Racial tensions were at their peak at this point in the civil rights movement, and a single police action that caught too much attention from black onlookers spurred the riots which would rock the city for nearly a week. The National Guard was sent in to attempt to keep the peace to little avail, as the violence continued with many people being losing their lives and many more being injured.
The massive amount of racial tension surrounding the Detroit Riots sets the stage for one of the most tense films of the year.
While taking place in the center of the riots, the film opts to focus on a much smaller group of actors caught up in all of the chaos. On the fourth day of the riots, an armed confrontation took place at the Algiers Motel, and that is where most of the film takes place.
First and foremost, this is a methodical film. It has no reservations about taking its time to make its point. It works for the most part, though it will begin to show its length after a while. The film begins with an extended introduction that sets up the riots before shifting to the events at the Algiers which dominate the remainder of the film in some capacity. The scene begins innocently enough with a group of young black men interacting with two white girls who were visiting from Ohio. After going their separate ways, one of the young men directs a starter’s pistol out his window and “shoots” at some of the police officers and national guardsmen stationed a few blocks away. This prompts the police to assault the Algiers Motel in search of a sniper which did not exist.
From the first second that the police take action towards the motel and the people within it, the tension is ratcheted up to 11 where it will remain for a very long time. The police line up all of the people who were in the building against a wall in the entryway of the building and begin to interrogate and abuse each and every one of them, women included. At any point, someone could get killed by an impatient police officer, and it is that anticipation of a seemingly inevitable outcome which creates the massive amount of tension within this extended scene. Another major contributor of this tension is the camera, which is placed in the center of all of the action and provides the audience with an experience that simulates everything that the people within that room were going through.
Both the tension and the camera style are quickly becoming hallmarks of films directed by Kathryn Bigelow. She is establishing herself as the preeminent female director in the west right now, and this distinct style goes a long way towards that. This does have one downside, as anyone in the audience that has trouble with motion sickness or eye strain (such as myself) can have a difficult time sitting all the way through one of her films. Fortunately, the camera is not nearly as shaky in this film as it is in her previous films, and once the films migrates to the Algiers, the issue almost evaporates completely. The tight spaces inside the building don’t lend themselves to the dramatic amount of camera movements.
Eye strain aside, there is an issue that comes up with the intensity of the standoff within the Algiers: it is too long. As the scene wears on, the tension drops not due to a lack of intensity, distress or urgency on the screen, but due to the audience’s fatigue. It is not easy to maintain that level of tension for as long as the film wants to, and as the resolution of the scene nears, the tension is not nearly as strong as it was to open. Had this scene been a few minutes shorter, the audience would be more capable of managing the high level of tension that the film asks of them. It is still a very compelling and dramatic scene, it just needs to be shorter.
Though the tension fades within the sequence, it is most certainly not the fault of the characters on the screen, which are a major strength of this film. Almost each and every character feel as though they are real people who were plucked off the streets of Detroit and dropped into this film. They have distinct personalities and desires that all contribute to the complexity of the standoff. The most compelling characters are the police officers who play the role of antagonist within the film. Their actions are the driving force within the scene, and they are the ones whose bloodlust creates the immense tension. The fear from the young men and women in the scene is clear and palpable, and thanks to their distinct characteristics, are characters that the audience wants to see make it out of the nightmare they are trapped within.
Despite playing what is apparently an integral role in the film, John Boyega’s character just isn’t fleshed out enough in the film to provide the necessary value.
There are only two characters that don’t quite pick up their end of the deal. There is a black security guard played by John Boyega that gets caught in this quagmire, and there is a black veteran played by Anthony Mackie who can’t quite stand out as strong characters alongside all of the others. Boyega’s character is a little too flat, as while his intentions and reason for interfering with this standoff are clear, the character does not display the sort of urgency that would be expected of him. He does not quite express as much as the other characters do, and his part within the scene is wrapped up before the conclusion. Mackie’s character simply suffers from a lack of screen time. Each of the other victims in the Algiers has more time on screen than he does, and his character simply does not have enough time to develop properly. Lastly, of the two young women, one of them clearly has a larger role than the other, but the second has just enough to do to get a better impression than either Boyega’s or Mackie’s characters.
Eventually the confrontation ends, but not before three black men are killed. The film then shifts into its second phase, where it begins to make critical statements of the American Judicial system. Unfortunately, the issue of time rears its head. The aftermath of the three killings within the Algiers is significance, and in many ways is the real purpose of the film, but it too simply takes a little too long to wrap itself up.
The epilogue closely follows the character played by Algee Smith, who had dreams of becoming a Motown star prior to the riots. However, witnessing the violence of the three police officers at the Algiers Motel, and then watching as they each walked away after being found not guilty was too much for him to bear. He gave up on his dream, and withdrew into black communities- black churches to be more specific- and has lived the rest of his life there. While this ending feels appropriate, it is not necessarily needed. Following this one character past the events of the trial did not quite feel satisfying enough. The film ends on just the slightest bit of a whimper as a result, simply because there was not clear way to conclude the film. Perhaps if this ending, like the intense confrontation from earlier in the film, were a bit shorter and more concise, the entire film would feel a bit more complete. Unfortunately, this film involves a difficult subject to wrap up in a nice and neat bow, and there may have not been any way to create an ending that felt satisfying.
One reason the ending cannot feel satisfying is because, as far as the subject matter shown in the film, there is no ending. While this film takes place in 1967 Detroit, it could easily have taken place in 1965 Watts, or 1992 Los Angeles, or 2014 Ferguson. The relationship between U.S. law enforcement and African Americans is one that has continued to fray with every passing day. This statement is what lies at the heart of Detroit; the events that took place at the Algiers Motel on July 25th, 1967 as portrayed in this film stand in for every other instance of injustice and police brutality that have taken place over the past half century and beyond. Of Bigelow’s three most recent films, this is the one which has the most defined and pronounced message, and in many ways, it is far more political than her previous two films which both took place during wars. It is saying that justice is not equal in the U.S. and that law enforcement officers are not held to account for their actions which most often come at the expense of young black men and women. This is a conflict that continues to this day, and there is not apparent conclusion in sight. Thus, how can a film that is so intimately tied to this issue have an appropriate conclusion when there is no such conclusion in sight for the issue itself?