In the early moments of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Detroit (2017), the Dramatics’ lead singer Cleveland Larry Reed (Algee Smith) takes to an empty stage – the audience has been vacated because of the impending doom of the nearby 12th Street riots – and sings acapella to an empty hall. In a brief moment of clarity in an otherwise muddy film, we come to realize that this terrible, unnecessary outbreak of violence is harming art. Culture. Specifically, the African American experience and its expression. Sure enough, after the events unfold in Detroit’s Algiers Motel, Larry’s singing voice – both his career and totem of identity – is used as a symbol of his emotional scarring. By the end of the film, Larry simply cannot sing for white people anymore, he tells us with indignation, and he breaks up with his group: the Dramatics go big without him, and he suffers through a cold Michigan winter before landing a gig in a local church choir. Here, in safety, he can sing about redemption. See, there are no white people in the congregation.
Detroit is Crash (2004) for a new decade. A decade post-Tamir Rice, post-George Zimmerman, post-police bodycams, and mid-Trump. I have no doubt that Detroit will find its proponents and swim in Oscar rumors and various accolades. But Bigelow and Boal’s final product is shockingly misguided; the equivalent of Bradley Whitford’s character in Get Out (2017) when he breaks the ice by pining for a third Obama presidential term, with a twinkle in his eye. Like Crash, it is racist when tackling racism, and suffers the worst kind of ignorance.
Often, this irony is palpable. After a night of Hostel (2005)-like torture at the hands of Detroit’s white Boys in Blue, Larry is discovered by an anonymous beat cop. This character’s simpering line read, “Who could have done this to you?” elicited unintended laughter from the audience I was with; and it’s when we, now also free from the horrors of the Algiers Motel and given an opportunity to catch our breath, recognize the fallacy in the film’s moral. Detroit addresses the effects of racism but not its causes, and is quick to blame without speaking truth to the powers of racism and bigotry. Nothing said or seen heals very real, and present, wounds.
Bigelow’s Detroit begins remarkably well, with an animated prologue inspired from Jacob Lawrence’s great Migration Series, and an on-the-street 15-minute exposé detailing the beginnings of the 12th Street rebellion. This brilliant sequence, winding through seething crowds and a few distinguishable faces using a combination of historical footage and dramatized reenactments, very clearly wants to be The American Battle of Algiers (1966). If it kept to task, following that film’s documentarian point of view and socialist humanism, Detroit just may have worked as intended. But once we arrive at the real (motel) Algiers and are introduced to our cast of historical characters, the film stumbles into unfortunate cliches. Bigelow fills the film’s second act with an overlong sequence of misguided torture porn, with all the cartoonish characterizations and unnecessary voyeurism that destroy the genre’s credibility: the police are buffoons or lechers, and the victims are unforgivingly unsympathetic, save for the superficial attachments inherent in any filmed character. Then the film’s third act dry heaves unexpectedly to nothing less than a pedantic courtroom drama; but by now, all tension in the film has dried up. It’s all just a little bit of history repeating.
When Larry reconnects with the Dramatics after the police are acquitted (see last sentence), they have achieved the success he once longed for but can no longer ascribe to: singing in harmony in shiny suits to the mixed-race audience that paid for a ticket. For Larry, his group, love and art has become a commodity: blackness swinging and singing under a spotlight to put paying butts in the seats. Ultimately, Detroit feels the same: blackness on display for the cruel enjoyment of anyone that pays, a chance for us to be on the receiving end of the horrors of racism for two hours and then quietly retreat back to the sanctuaries of our daily lives, without consequence. For some, that alone may feel like an accomplishment. For the rest, though, no justice has been done.