- Detroit (2017) movie review: However well-intentioned, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s skillfully made fact-based “dramatic thriller” is ultimately unsatisfying as both drama and history.
Detroit movie review: Disturbingly realistic semidocumentary or self-serving Hollywood depiction of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion?
From July 23 through July 27 of 1967, the people in the city of Detroit rebelled against the conditions of their existence. Some call this event the 1967 Detroit Riot. It’s also known as the 12th Street Riot and the 1967 Detroit Rebellion. I prefer the last one.
During the rebellion, 43 people died – 33 of whom were black, 10 were white. Twenty-four of the black victims were shot by police officers and National Guardsmen, while six were shot by store owners and security guards.
Three of those killings are the subject of the new dramatic thriller Detroit, directed by Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow and written by her itinerant The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty scenarist Mark Boal, both of whom also among the the movie’s five credited producers.
“Dramatic thriller,” I should add, is the marketing term for art being used in the promotion of the movie. We’ll get back to that notion in a moment.
Horrible reality mixed with appalling condescension
The movie Detroit is, for the most part, masterfully composed. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd returns to “put the audience in the action”; his credits include The Hurt Locker for Bigelow, as well as Paul Greengrass’ United 93, Green Zone, Captain Phillips, and Jason Bourne, among a number of other shaky-cam flicks.
Providing a sense of Haskell Wexler-esque vérité is Ackroyd’s speciality, and that’s the central goal of Detroit’s filmmakers: To make all of what’s shown on screen seem real. Horribly real. And this they generally achieve.
The problem is that when it’s not being horribly real, Detroit is deeply self-serving, occasionally condescending, and more than a little irritating. This is usually what happens when white filmmakers decide to tell the story of a minority their ancestors lorded over during one of the United States’ many instances of exceptional cruelty to communities that are not white.
We will return to this notion of the filmmakers’ condescension and self-serving presentation in a bit. As to the movie being irritating, that might just be me.
Nonetheless, once again, Detroit is very well made.
Its players are all deeply committed, particularly Will Poulter (The Revenant, We Are the Millers) as Krauss, the Detroit policeman at the center of several dastardly moments during the rebellion, including the killing of the three young black men mentioned above.
The fact that Officer Krauss (and others) killed these boys was not disputed. The facts surrounding the killings, however, were.
Much of the mayhem takes place in the Algiers Motel, where Krauss and his cohorts – including other Detroit police officers, state troopers, and National Guardsmen – engage in a brutal (and brutally depicted) series of interrogations wherein several young black men and two young white women are abused physically and psychologically.
At times, several of them are murdered outright.
Problematic ‘capable’ filmmaking
All of this capable filmmaking and these extraordinary performances are part of the problem with Detroit, other films of its kind – which include most civil rights era sagas, from Driving Miss Daisy to The Help – and most slave narratives, from Mandingo and Roots to 12 Years a Slave, Roots again, and Free State of Jones.
That’s in addition to both the demonstrably evil The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith) and the well-intentioned The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker), the latter produced for the most part by black filmmakers.
These films are all so well made, so “good,” that their sheer impressive presentation often obscure their effect on the communities they portend to support – or not, in the case of Griffith. The effect being to recast these communities again and again as savagely brutalized victims, degraded and beatdown.
Which, of course, has been true in the history of America and has been well documented in the history of American cinema. Fully documented, some might say.
‘Ongoing beatdown of Black America’
By virtue of their earnestness, these films – including Griffith’s deeply earnest intention to spread lies and hurt black folks – contribute to the ongoing beatdown of Black America in American movies. They enfranchise the notion of degradation and defeat as the central narrative of African Americans – along with those of women and the various minorities in the nation.
We’ve been watching ourselves get our asses kicked – and get abused, raped, and murdered – in the movies for more than 100 years. Very often, we are presented these images, historical or otherwise, in films meant to appease us; and by extension, to assuage the guilt of the descendants of the previously mentioned unkind majority even though the former are often, as noted, being both condescending and self-serving in the process – the occasional Hidden Figures, notwithstanding.
Ostensibly, Detroit and the like are also meant to educate the nation about these histories and to ensure that these deprivations of humanity never happen again. But they don’t.
At best they entertain, which is another issue we’ll get to.
Movies like Detroit miss the ‘truth’ of historical events
However well made, these movies always fail to capture the “truth” of events like those painstakingly – expertly – captured in Detroit because, like all narrative fiction, they’re made up.
Certainly they are deeply researched; in fact, the exhaustive research into these events is noted in the end credits of Detroit. It’s a moment that felt like the filmmakers saying to the audience, “See, we looked it up on more than just the internet.” Which they plainly did. Good for them.
Nevertheless, it’s made up – filtered, interpreted, staged – but presented to us, the audience, as history. Even so, these filmmakers have decided they know what happened at the Algiers Motel that hot July night in 1967. They show us these cops shooting from the hip, planting evidence, abusing, maligning, and ultimately killing.
These filmmakers believe the victims and deign to tell their story – but not the victims’ way; rather the Hollywood way. And they may well have gotten it right, including many of the facts and the tone of the day. For that matter, I agree with them. These cops are guilty of everything they are accused of, so far as I’m concerned.
But I’m a Black American from the 1960s, who knows this history as a history of the lives of my people in this nation. From uprisings in Philly and Harlem to those in Watts and Ferguson (where I lived for years), these stories have been lived and told from generation to generation with the specific intention of keeping me and black boys like me alive.
The idea that the police could and did kill black folks anywhere, at anytime, for any reason – or no reason at all – has been a baseline of understanding in black communities for 400 years, give or take a week or two during Reconstruction and Bill Clinton’s first election.
For Black Americans, the events of Detroit ’67 are not the events of a “dramatic thriller.” They are the events of a tragedy and still-living history we know very well.
Detroit movie fiction
On the other hand, the events in Kathryn Bigelow’s film are not true. Detroit is a fictional movie, not a documentary. Indeed, Detroit the Movie, is a dramatic thriller meant first to entertain – which it does and which is why I don’t like it and would never send anyone to see it, no matter how well intentioned and well made.
This is one level of the self-serving nature of this particular film – and of these films and filmmakers in general. In other words, it’s about entertainment first, if not only. Something that is meant to let the filmmakers off the hook; to give them creative license to tell these stories to their most engaging effect. Except that it doesn’t work that way.
Because the movie Detroit is ultimately “entertainment,” it must do several things that are required of narrative American studio cinema. That is why the word “thriller” plays such a prominent part in the marketing. That is why the trailer looks and sounds like the Zero Dark Thirty trailer, rather than the trailer for, say, Jackie or even Selma (which I also have issues with).
Real-life tragedy as entertainment
You’ll note that the word “tragedy” is not used in the marketing of Detroit.
Tragedy is the accurate description of these events and most of the events of the many slave and slave-related narratives we are repeatedly offered as entertainment. These are all horrible, reverberating tragedies that devastated lives and truncated the advancement of a people. The one thing they are not is “thrilling.” If you find them thrilling, you’ve got a problem.
But Hollywood can’t sell tragedies that Shakespeare didn’t write, so filmmakers take these tragedies and recast them as fodder for a thriller – titillating while evoking our most basic emotional responses to the images and scenarios we are presented, which are both demeaning and diminishing.
And which I note again may all be true-ish in regard to the events of the day. Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter because for Detroit, these miseries were destined to be played as nail-biting. Which by my measure is condescending at best, sadistic at worst, and definitely self-serving in every case.
The irony of good intentions
Detroit, with all its good intentions and little contrivances of history, with its desire to commiserate with a downtrodden community even as it treads upon that community in every frame, is a movie that I didn’t need, don’t want, and will not recommend even as I know Hollywood will honor it in the weeks and months ahead with all of its Good Citizenship awards, as it checks off a box on its list of good deeds. #HollywoodNotSoRacistAfterAll.
The history of the events of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion are just that: history. They are not fodder for a self-serving thriller that subjects audiences – no matter their ethnicity – once again to a cinematic beatdown of Black America at the hands of stereotyped white Americans who, we are reminded in the film, are nothing like the good white folks who made this movie as an entertaining service to the greater community.
And to think these brutal images are brought to black Americans – to everyone – by well-intentioned white American filmmakers who identify, so to speak, with our pain. There’s irony in that.
Reductionist presentation of history
One more time: Detroit is a very well-made movie. If you should see it, you will likely come away from it emotionally tweaked – in one direction or another.
If you are black (as I am), you’ll likely feel sickened and once again reduced to little more than the collective tragedies of our history.
If you are an average white person, you’ll likely come away sickened and perhaps embarrassed, as you are reduced to little more than the heinous behavior of your ancestors.
But one thing is for sure: You’ll not “know” anything true about the 1967 Detroit Rebellion.
The real 1967 Detroit Rebellion
But if you do want to know about the history of these events, you can. There’s a great book called Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies (Wayne State University Press), edited by Joel Stone. It’s a well-written, cogent analysis of the titular issues of the day.
Besides, there is a recent documentary account of the events, Brian Kaufman’s 12th and Clairmount, produced by the Detroit Free Press in collaboration with Bridge Magazine and WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) and a group of Metro Detroit cultural institutions led by the Detroit Institute of Arts.
12th and Clairmount contains more than 400 reels of donated home movies from the era, along with narratives from people who were there – people who lived the events themselves. The documentary isn’t “thrilling,” but it captures this history without degrading the victims through the adept use of the tools of narrative cinema.
Unlike Detroit, it does not use good intentions and excellent filmmaking to once again, stylishly, beat down black people in a movie meant to make white people feel better about themselves.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow.
Screenplay: Mark Boal.
Cast: John Boyega. Will Poulter. Algee Smith. Jacob Latimore. Jason Mitchell. Hannah Murray. Jack Reynor. Kaitlyn Dever. Ben O’Toole. John Krasinski. Anthony Mackie. Bennett Deady.
“Detroit Movie (2017) Review” endnotes
Detroit movie box office information via boxofficemojo.com.
John Boyega and Will Poulter Detroit movie images: Annapurna Pictures.
“Detroit Movie (2017) Review: Bigelow & Boal’s Self-Serving ‘Thriller’” last updated in September 2021.