No one can sustain a gut-wrenching sequence quite like director Kathryn Bigelow, who brought us The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. The central set piece of Detroit is a long, excruciating exercise in mental and physical abuse by police officers who have isolated a handful of “suspects” during a night of riotous turmoil in 1967—exactly fifty years ago. We’ve already seen one of the officers (Will Poulter) being reprimanded by his superior for this kind of racist—and illegal—conduct, but that doesn’t deter him from pursuing his self-justified brand of justice.
Yet when it’s all over, I can’t tell you what I’ve gained from the experience. It isn’t a shock to learn that there were abusive cops in Detroit fifty years ago or that their behavior is all too reminiscent of recent incidents in the news. Nor is it a surprise that responsible, level-headed officers aren’t able to stop zealots like these from doing terrible things. (Strangely, a scene in which a white cop helps an injured black man seems out of place and unrealistic.)
Is there a larger lesson, or message, being imparted, or is this merely an attempt to document a heinous occurrence?
The punishing events depicted in Detroit are based on a real-life case that inflamed the city during a week of rioting. While journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal (who also wrote Bigelow’s last two films) has done his homework, conflicting accounts of this particular incident have impelled him to use dramatic license.
That said, the narrative of Detroit is brimming with logical loopholes and unexplained actions. They may be absolutely true but that doesn’t mean they make sense to us in the audience. The presence of a black undercover cop in the raid of an after-hours club, at the beginning of the film, is never explained; his actions and motives are curious and provocative. The same is true for a crucial piece of evidence in the subsequent invasion of a house where gunfire has drawn cops, state police, and members of the National Guard. Why is that important item never mentioned or explained?
America’s history of racial violence and police abuse is shameful, but a great film on the subject should do more than merely reenact one notorious incident. I think we are owed something more, be it interpretation or understanding …something to take away at the end of a two-hour ordeal. I wish Detroit provided that, but it doesn’t.