Easily the most contentious film of 2017, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit picks up right where Zero Dark Thirty left off, employing the same hyperreal immersion to dissect the 1967 Detroit Race Riots, and the subsequent Algiers Motel Killings. The film opens as a docudrama, blending new and found footage to depict the buildup to the riots, before converging the action on the Algiers, where the night unfolds through the eyes of several key characters, most notably Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a member of the up-and-coming soul group The Dramatics, and security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). Most of the film is swallowed up, consumed and entrapped by this sustained and shockingly claustrophobic episode, in which a police mob led by Officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) takes a collection of (mainly) black residents of the Hotel by force, and then proceeds to systematically assault, torture and brutalise them. In fact, the majority of the film takes place in a single, dingy corridor, where the police line up their victims before taking them off to separate rooms for further torment, in what has to be one the most suffocating sequences ever committed to film. So suffocating is it that it divests Detroit of even the most residual period nostalgia, heightening the present moment to such an unbearable extent that the action effectively feels shot and located in the present tense, in the immediate here and now of racial hatred.
Part of what makes Detroit so powerful is the way in which it positions white rage at black male virility – or perceived black male virility – as the main motivator for torture and brutality, with Krauss’ actions boiling down to his incredulity at the fact of white women having consensual sex with white men. It’s a paranoia that extends to his entire body of police officers, with the critical tipping-point coming when one of his henchmen walks in on a black resident of the hotel with two white women. At these moments, Bigelow utterly nails the claustrophobic insatiability of white masculinity, and the paranoid fear of emasculation at the hands of African-Americans that informs so much white masculine pride in the United States at present. Presumably, that’s because Bigelow herself has experienced another iteration of this pride as a woman working in Hollywood, from both her peers and from film critics ar large, who seem perpetually perplexed at her apparent inability to make conventionally, recognisably or reducibly “feminine” pictures. Instead, Bigelow’s pervasive subject has been one typically reserved for white male directors – namely, white masculinity in crisis – and the critical discomfort around that – and especially the liberal critical crisis – has become so pronounced in recent years as to almost feel like the main subject of her films, or at least completely continuous with the crises they enact.
In other words, Detroit is a film about gender as much about race – a film about the intersection of gender and race – as black people and white women – and, of course, black women – converge as objects of white paternalistic paranoia. That’s not to say, however, that Bigelow discards the racial angle, or subsumes race into gender, since while white women were brutalised as part of the Algiers Motel Killings, the film goes out of its way to make it clear that they didn’t suffer the same atrocities as their black counterparts and that even within this hellish scenario they were still privileged, as evinced in their relative indifference to their fellow prisoners when they’re prematurely released. They’re a part of the story, but Detroit isn’t primarily their story to tell, and yet Bigelow also refuses to pretend that the desecration of female bodies and the desecration of black bodies doesn’t spring from the same source, which means refusing to leave any point of stable orientation or identification for a liberal critical apparatus that’s nearly always coded as straight, white and male. It’s not hard to see, then, why Detroit has been such a box office bomb, since the people who might be responsive to its reminders – women and black folk – don’t really need another reminder, while the people responsible for its atrocities – liberal whiteness – are excluded by its address from the outset, and excluded more emphatically as it proceeds.
Yet that refusal to envisage a position of comforting critical detachment is also what makes this such a unique film, and such a characteristic film for Bigelow, who also refuses to grant even the most residual nobility, gravity or legacy to institutional procedure, in what may just be the most scathing film about the police force ever released by a Hollywood director. While criticisms have been levelled at the film’s supposed investment in “humanising” the police force, the lack of any single or stable humanist vantage point works directly against this process, and indeed rapidly disillusions the single black character who tries to adopt it. This has been one of the most controversial parts of the film, with many critics suggesting that John Boyega’s depiction of Melvin Dismukes is meant to suggest that black activists were complicit with the police, and part of the problem. On the face of it, and from a simple plot synopsis, that does indeed sound like it might be the case, since we first meet Melvin trying to make nice with police officers supervising the riot, while his privileged position as the only African-American at the Algiers Motel with a gun nevertheless doesn’t prevent him trying to broker some kind of reconciliation between the police and their mounting victims.
Yet to call Boyega’s Dismukes a bystander, or complicit, or an indictment of black activism, seems utterly discontinuous with my experience of the film, in which this character appeared as a reminder of the limits of compromise, and the pitfalls of resorting to reason or appealing to a common humanist language in the face of a racism so endemic that it has entirely co-opted polite democratic discourse for its own nefarious purposes. Far from exposing Dismukes’ complicity, the abbreviated and telescoped second and third acts – which depict his interrogation and the “trial” of the police – register Dismukes’ shock at having depended on even the slightest vestige of common humanity, the slightest faith in the system, and the slightest assumption that the law won’t act with breathtaking hypocrisy. In other words, he starts as a hypothesis of black liberal subjectivity, only to find himself traumatically and inevitably radicalised by the end of the film, leaving us without any regular resolution, and ensuring that Bigelow’s dynamic mise-en-scenes never settle into the comforting critical, historical or social detachment of a Hollywood cautionary tale.
Instead, the very rhetoric of reasonable, compassionate civil discourse that might be expected to humanise and distantiate us as an audience is used to exonerate the murders and perpetuate the injustice of the murderers themselves. Even more visceral – if that were possible – than the claustrophobia of the siege, these abbreviated final acts capture the crushing, suffocating, overwhelming sensation that the very language of liberal reason and compassion has been placed in the hands of monsters, or was perhaps even in the hands of monsters all along. A small moment towards the end captures it perfectly (or a big moment, depending on how you look at it), when the judge presiding over the trial points out that the police weren’t properly Mirandised before being brought to account. In his precision, focus and self-important attention to the letter of the law lies the entire hypocritical humanism that the film refuses and resists, since what this judge also fails to note is that proper legal procedure – the procedure he relishes in the very act of making this statement – was utterly and flagrantly disregarded in the treatment of every black person targeted by the killings.
In that disparity lies the rage of Detroit – its rage at black humanist pictures made for white audiences – and its wilful insistence on making a film designed to please nobody, if only to avoid the assumption of a homogeneously humanistic Hollywood audience that never really existed in the first place. Amping up her dynamic compositions, digital flux and dusky palettes as never before, Bigelow makes us feel what it is like to be trapped and debilitated by these humanistic pronouncements, and the enormous visceral and affective toll they take upon the body. In fact, Bigelow’s very camera often feels as if it grasping for a subjectivity and affective orientation alterior to that of the human body, along with a post-human sensory apparatus to cement her rejection of humanism, lending the film a remarkably Afro-futurist sensibility for a white director in its eventual rejection of the human, and humanism, as a horizon of civil rights. As with so many Afro-futurists, Bigelow’s camera seems to intuitively understand that humanism defines the human by default as straight, white, liberal and middle-class, and to seek out something else instead, even if the film never fully formulates or resolves what that alterity might involve. Far from exonerating the police force, then, Detroit makes you realise how much the US media still frames police brutality as the exception, even or especially in situations in which it is overtly and proudly systemic, since that tends to be just when it appeals to the “humanism” so skewered here.
Over the last thirty years, it’s that scepticism of humanism that has made Bigelow such a powerful feminist director, and so with Detroit she achieves something like a genuinely intersectional feminism – a reaching-out to another group of people disempowered by the same paternalistic structures that have both contained and galvanised her into one of the most original, dogged and courageous directors working in America day. Of course, she is still a white director telling a black story – or a predominantly black story, in this particular case – but what Detroit demonstrates is that a white director also has a particular perspective on white entitlement (and especially white male entitlement) if she constitutes herself in a particular way. Certainly, it feels as if Bigelow is drawing upon her own uneasy and unique relation to Hollywood more than ever here, even or especially if the events depicted feel further away from her own experience, both personally and historically, than just about any film she has ever made. Yet in that distance, and in the way it suddenly seems less incommensurable than initially appeared, lies the film’s power, and its profound insights into the ways in which digital cinematography can be used to build a genuinely intersectional aesthetic. And the result of that intersectionality is a vision in white paternalism is steelier, bleaker and more weighed down with entitlement than in just about any film released in the last year – “a pain that never goes away,” as one character puts it, and a pain whose points of contact with other situations and scenarios Bigelow has never articulated as brilliantly, resolutely or, indeed, as experimentally as she does with Detroit.