Detroit Documentary Essay

Watching "Detroit," the latest film directed by Kathryn Bigelow and penned by Mark Boal, I hit a breaking point I didn’t realize I had. I was disturbed so deeply by what I witnessed that I left the theater afterward in tears.

It wasn’t the relentless violence inflicted upon black bodies or the fiery devastation of the riots ripping apart Detroit but the emptiness behind these moments that got under my skin. Watching “Detroit” I realized that I’m not interested in white perceptions of black pain. White filmmakers, of course, have every right to make stories that highlight the real and imagined histories of racism and police brutality that pointedly affect Black America. There are, of course, a litany of films by white filmmakers about subject matter unique to the black experience that I find moving—“The Color Purple” comes to mind. But Steven Spielberg’s film was based on a novel by Alice Walker and produced by Quincy Jones. “Detroit” was directed, written, produced, shot, and edited by white creatives who do not understand the weight of the images they hone in on with an unflinching gaze.


“Detroit” is ultimately a confused film that has an ugliness reflected in its visual craft and narrative. Bigelow is adept at making the sharp crack of an officer’s gun against a black man’s face feel impactful but doesn’t understand the meaning of the emotional scars left behind or how they echo through American history. “Detroit” is a hollow spectacle, displaying rank racism and countless deaths that has nothing to say about race, the justice system, police brutality, or the city that gives it its title.

The film builds up to an extended sequence based on a real event, a police raid at the Algiers Motel in 1967 Detroit that resulted in the deaths of three young black men and the beatings of nine other people, including two white women. There is a shagginess to the narrative as it opens, giving a portrait of the civil unrest and riots that dominated Detroit at the time before placing the variety of characters introduced into a powder keg of a situation at the Algiers Motel. After the blood has dried and scars began to heal for the survivors, the narrative dashes through the investigation, trial, and aftermath of that night. There is an increasingly heavy reliance on newspaper clippings and actual newsreel footage meant to provide meaning and gravitas that only highlights the lack of a thematic center to grant the film any weight.

Bigelow has made a career out of zeroing in on the particular textures of American masculinity. It’s one of the reasons I particularly love her earlier work whether that be the sublime and unapologetically silly “Point Break” or the gloriously intense “Near Dark.” It’s this history that makes the surface level understanding of character so glaring. The film gestures at the ways black and white men are pitted against each other but doesn’t reckon with the historical lineage this conflict rests in. Consider when the two white women—Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever)—are found hanging out with a black man recently honorably discharged, played by Anthony Mackie, just as the raid on the motel begins. This gets into complex territory about stereotypes of black men, the perceived value of white women, and white men’s fear that the film doesn’t know how to address meaningfully.


While John Boyega has been top-billed for his performance as Melvin Dismukes, a security guard who stumbles into aiding the blatantly racist cops and armed forces that realize the civil rights violations happening but do nothing to stop it, he’s too passive a character to leave much of an impression. In standing by his position as an authority figure and helping these white cops, Melvin becomes complicit in their horror. Boyega is a charismatic actor, but he gives a flat performance, although it’s the script that’s more of a problem. Mark Boal skirts around the issue of Melvin’s complicity, leaving an interesting story on the table. The standout from the cast proves to be Algee Smith, who grants his character a soulfulness and yearning that grows more heartbreaking as the film continues, but even his performance is often undercut by directorial choices. 

There are plenty of examples of racism in the film, but it's William Poulter’s performance as Philip Krauss, a cop who becomes a ringleader to horror at the Algiers Motel, that’s the most sickening. Krauss is quick to violence, virulently racist, and immensely cunning. He delights in beating the black men who realize he’s abusing his power but can do nothing to stop him even as dead bodies pile up. Bigelow doesn’t flinch from depicting Krauss’ horror, but she also doesn’t thoroughly indict him or the systems that allow men like him to survive.

Before the film’s release, a lot of fury was unleashed when it became clear that black women wouldn’t be important to the story. Films about black history seldom grant black women the importance they deserve. In “Detroit,” they are in the margins. They’re dutiful wives placing a gentle hand on the shoulder of their husbands; they’re silent spectators in courtrooms; they’re sweet motel clerks with no real weight in the story. An elder black female character voices dialogue that is the closest the film gets to any commentary: “No way would they do this to white men,” she says angrily to a news reporter hungry for a good pull quote. 


But “Detroit”’s disinterest in black women, despite significant time spent beyond the Algiers Motel, is the least of its problems. What leaves the film feeling grotesque and even a bit exploitative is its soullessness. I’ve had a theory for some time that you can determine how well a film will handle its black characters based purely on how it’s shot. Black skin tones vary widely, but here they’re often ashen, sickly, and lacking the complexity they deserve. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd hews toward a psuedo-documentary style that is perpetually in jittery, confusing motion. Bigelow and Ackroyd excel at creating tension until the Algiers Motel incident takes on the tenor of an extended trip into purgatory. The sweat and blood that drips down the characters' faces are granted such texture and focus I could practically smell them wafting from the screen. Bigelow is immensely skilled at action, and watching Philip pick off his victims definitely crackles with energy. But there is a noxiousness to the thrill of these scenes and the extreme close-ups of bruised black bodies, because the characters lack interiority. 

The soullessness of the film only snapped into focus for me near the very end when one of the survivors, Larry, is shown singing at church. The church is important to the black community both as an emblem of hope and resistance. But this scene is shot exactly like the most disturbing moments at Algiers Motel. The camera moves much like a boxer. It bobs and weaves staying perpetually in motion. There is an anxious energy and bluntness that feels out of place as Larry sings in front of the black congregation.

When I left the theater, I overheard a black filmgoer say repeatedly, “This is still happening. This is still happening.” I only looked at him briefly, but in his voice there was a weariness and disappointment I felt myself. Given how nothing has really changed in America for black folks, “Detroit” had the potential to be a valuable, even powerful, piece of art that could speak truth to power. But it lacks the authenticity necessary to become that. Bigelow and Boal don’t shy away from showing how loathsome Philip and his cohorts are. But they don’t go so far to indict them or grant enough context to their actions. There are also brief, disconcerting moments that present some white cops in a great light. Ultimately, I was left wondering who is this film really for? The filmmakers aren’t skilled enough to understand the particulars of blackness or bring the city of Detroit to life as another character. What is the value of depicting such nauseating violence if you have nothing to say about how that violence comes to pass or what it says about a country that has yet to reckon with the racism that continues to fester within its very soul?


“Detroit” is presented as a valuable portrait of a bloody, violent, and important moment of American history. The epilogue detailing what happened next for everyone involved over pictures of the real-life versions of the characters and story gestures at vital commentary about racism that the filmmakers never get a handle on. Bigelow, Boal, and their collaborators are unable to meaningfully parallel this event to the present-day happenings they mirror. Watching “Detroit,” I didn’t see a period drama, but a horror film. The horror of white filmmakers taking on black history and the violence perpetuated upon black bodies with an unwavering eye yet nothing to say. 

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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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