Whenever I see a film centered around a highly charged topic, I’m worried I’m going to get a lecture rather than a piece of art or entertainment. I’m worried that the filmmakers are going to use their two hours to stick their views into the mouth of a noble protagonist. I don’t care if I agree or disagree with their opinion. It’s just that this approach doesn’t make for good movies. They’re boring and didactic and often insult the intelligence of their viewers. Thankfully, Detroit despite being centered around police violence against African Americans, never falls into this trap. Instead it offers a compelling narrative with a panoply of multi-dimensional characters and a big dose of context to create a nuanced view on a fraught topic. The result is an entertaining and thought-provoking film that deals with challenging subject matter by forcing viewers to stare directly into a tragic situation and come to their own conclusions.
Detroit centers around the 1967 riots in Detroit which saw a largely African American community facing off against the national guard and the largely white police force. Much of the film centers on the Algiers Hotel Incident in the midst of these riots, where police humiliated and beat a mostly African American group of hotel guests in response to reports of sniper fire from the building. In the end, three teenage African American men were killed as a result. The event itself is covered in harrowing detail, as director Katheryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal reconstruct the events of the night from a variety of first-hand accounts and police reports. The film portrays the way that psychopathic tendencies, racist attitudes, and high-pressure situations can combine with the psychology of human groups to create horrific situations.
And yet, despite focusing on the despicable actions of a small group of police officers, I never got the sense that the film was grasping for easy answers. Instead the film always focuses on individuals rather than the groups they belong to. It recognizes that, while humans are greatly affected by the groups they belong to, they are also individuals with their own motivations. Some of those people are heroes, others are psychopaths, and others are just scared and confused. In a story where it would be easy to paint characters with broad brush strokes, Detroit succeeds because it paints every individual with detail. While this film certainly has something to say about race relations and police violence, it approaches the matter intelligently, allowing room for viewers to come to their own conclusions.
Much of this is thanks to terrific acting. In particular John Boyega is terrific as a well-intentioned African American security guard caught between the suspects and the police at the hotel. His subdued performance effectively shows how even a well-intentioned and thoughtful individual struggles in navigating difficult moral situations in the heat of the moment. Algee Smith, in what I hope is a star-making turn, deserves a lot of credit for guiding viewers through the complexities of enduring and surviving a traumatic event. If anyone missteps, it’s Will Poulter as the officer who instigates the terrible behavior at the hotel. In a film full of nuanced and careful performances, he feels over the top. He plays the part like the classic Hollywood archetype of a psychopath. It’s just too much.
The film also benefits from its journalistic style that mixes an active camera with some actual footage from the event. This creates a real sense of urgency while also preserving a sense of being right on the scene. At the same time, deft editing allows the film to juggle the stories of multiple characters in many locations without feeling muddled or confusing.
Despite covering a highly charged topic, Detroit never falls into the trap of telling viewers what to think. Instead, it serves its audience by populating its story with deep characters and placing them in a deeply explored context. These elements come together to weave a complex tapestry that explores the terrible events of those riots without ever grabbing for simple answers or solutions. In a time where we’re inundated by politicians and talking heads offering simple diagnoses and cures for our many social ills, it’s satisfying to see a film which encourages us to sit back and look at an event in all its complexity. Detroit is a deeply uncomfortable watch, but anyone that cares about what’s going on in this country today should watch this movie. It’s the movie that we need today.