“Detroit”: A Collision of Genres

Nightmare on 12th Street.  July 1967, a sweltering summer in Detroit. The city erupts into rebellion.  Looting, arson, snipers.

This discussion piece contains some spoilers.

The Detroit Police Department is overwhelmed. Governor George W. Romney (yes – Mitt’s father) calls in the Michigan National Guard. President Lyndon B Johnson, after some tactical deliberation, sends in troops from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Michigan State Police join in. A curfew is imposed through the whole city.

Five days, 7200 arrests, 1189 injured and 43 deaths later, a calm of sorts is restored. Life will never be the same. For some young people, there will be lasting trauma: their experience has been one of horror.

That experience of horror is the focus of Kathryn Bigelow’s film – a true-life moment which came to be known as the Algiers Motel Incident.  Three teenagers are among the dead: Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.), and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore).

Their bodies are found, badly beaten, shot, in a motel where they had taken refuge from the rioting.  The general circumstances around their deaths are clear and on the record.  The exact circumstances, to this day, are not.  “Detroit” purports to tell that story.

It starts with the camera tracking across a series of 1940s paintings, The Great Migration, by the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence. It then plunges rapidly into the chaotic and violent moments leading up to the events at the Algiers Motel.

By 1967, Detroit remains heavily segregated, with a sizable African-American middle-class. The local police force is almost entirely white. Meanwhile, the city’s decline, which had already started in the late 1940s, is visibly underway.

Bigelow’s depiction of the early moments of that five-day rebellion is a cinematic treat, the stuff of action movies.  A celebration for African-American Vietnam veterans just come home takes place in an unlicensed after-hours drinking club – on the premises of a community civil rights organisation, on the corner of 12th Street.

Why there? African-American customers tend to be discriminated against in other types of venues.  And it is difficult for business owners to obtain bar licences.  The party gets broken up by a police raid. Guests are carted off in black marias.  A woman tells a policeman not to touch her.

It’s a slow operation. Bystanders start to protest.  Someone throws a bottle.

And it all then kicks off.

The action is explosive, immersive, brilliantly put together as one expects of a Bigelow film.  At times, it is difficult to determine what is original news footage and what is reconstruction: the transitions are seamless.

In the chaos, a group of young people, including members of The Dramatics, the soul music group, take refuge in the down-at-heel Algiers Motel.  This seems like a safe haven, if a bit seedy. It is night. For a while, people party, chat around the somewhat murky swimming pool, discuss jazz greats, play a Coltrane LP.

This peace is violently disrupted. Police, army and guardsmen arrive, hunting for a sniper.  They shoot at the building before storming in. Three police officers round up the motel’s occupants, who are almost all African-Americans. State police retreat quickly – they see a civil rights issue brewing up and want no part in it. Detroit police remain, and are in charge. They are joined by an African-American security guard, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). His role is ambiguous.

A violent nightmare begins. The policemen (Ben O’Toole and Jack Reynor) are led by their colleague Philip Krauss (Will Poulter).  Krauss is presented as a zealous sociopath, eager to cleanse the city.  He has already been reprimanded by his superiors for shooting a looter in the back, earlier that day.

Several young black men are detained, including Vietnam veteran Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie). There are also two young white women, Juli Hysell (Hannah Murray) and Karen Malloy (Kaitlyn Dever), visiting from Ohio.  Krauss’s fervour is intensified by his disgust at what he assumes to be miscegenation. Juli and Karen are accused of being prostitutes, and Robert their pimp.

Krauss orders everyone to line up in a hallway, to face the wall, hands up.  Who is the sniper, Krauss wants to know. Where is the gun? The death game starts.  Psychological torture, severe beatings and humiliation. Krauss is a monster.  He is about to inflict hell.  There are no nuances to him. Krauss, incidentally, is a composite character; the names of the three police officers involved in the incident have been changed).

In “Detroit”, the suffering seems to last a whole night, a drawn-out agony.  In real life, the harrowing moment at the Algiers Motel is thought to have lasted an hour. Long enough, and that is close to the amount of screen time the scene gets in the film. The violent interrogation in the motel becomes the story’s extended centrepiece. As a viewer, one wrestles with it, and then something becomes clear.

There’s been a genre shift. “Detroit” turns out to be a horror film.

At one level, the use of horror works exceedingly well. Too well? With Bigelow’s mastery of the genre, the film becomes an immersive experience. The sense of jeopardy is unbearable; one shock comes after the other. A visceral experience.

The central and lasting images of the film are that of a monster – Krauss – with powerless victims – they are seen cowering, fleeing or dying. It is the monster who becomes the star of the story. It’s all about Krauss, and this is unsettling: is “Detroit” about social and racial justice – the Detroit rebellion – or is it about a monster and his victims?

As the night progresses, and once Krauss understands there is nowhere to go and that he must relent, the film’s narrative energy is spent. The final section a brief and relatively flat account of the events’ aftermath. The legal process begins, and justice is not served.  The reasons for this are shown in only very broad strokes.

It is fair to say that it is hard to get things right with such a charged and complex subject. Critical responses to Ava DuVernay’s powerful 2014 film Selma, for example, have demonstrated the challenges filmmakers confront when they create stories out of iconic historical events – even when they are punctilious about the historical record, and create exceptional work.

Bigelow faces additional challenges. In addition to the obvious fact that she is an outsider looking in, there were practical issues. There is confusion about what exactly happened within the Algiers Motel, and Bigelow was also unable to obtain rights to a key reference text written by John Hersey and based on interviews in the months following the incident.

Together with her writer, Marc Boal, Bigelow took a view of what might have happened, and used creative licence to construct key scenes.  The film is well researched and written, but not a documentary and not quite a historical drama. “Detroit” is beautifully made and hard-hitting, but does it hit the mark?

Balancing horror genre conventions with authentic storytelling about racism is feasible – Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” demonstrates that. The critical difference between “Get Out” and “Detroit” however is that while “Get Out” re-appropriates the conventions of horror to create new insights and perspectives, “Detroit” adheres too well to genre conventions at a point when it matters that it should not. What really matters in the story is suppressed by the use of horror genre conventions.

And there are telling absences. In “Detroit”, African-American women only appear in passing, minor figures. Yet Rosa Parks lived just a mile away from the Algiers Motel; she knew one of the victims’ family; she took an active part in the People’s Tribunal, which attempted to apply due process, symbolically, to provide a sense of justice and closure to those affected by the events at the Algiers Motel.

The Detroit rebellion – also known as the Great Rebellion – is now understood as an expression of agency and hope, not the powerlessness of cowed victims so emphasised in “Detroit”. The city may have been in decline in July 1967, but its people were not. They were making history.

Interested in reading John Hersey’s detailed account of what happened at the Algiers Motel? You can buy it from the KinoSelect bookshop, here. And here is an interesting story about a lost work by the artist Jacob Lawrence, whose work is featured in “Detroit”.

Director Kathryn Bigelow
Writer Mark Boal
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd
With Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Nathan Davis Jr., Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben O’Toole, Jack Reynor, John Boyega, John Krasinski

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