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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024