Release Date: August 5, 2017
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Runtime: 143 minutes
Since the one-two punch of 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained, we have had an embarrassment of riches of nuanced cinematic portrayals of the history of racism in the United States. The latest film in this run is Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, which unfortunately is too little too late to be worthy of recommendation over its contemporaries.
To single out some of the positives in the film, the victims of the Algiers Motel incident are universally well portrayed by an exciting cast, including John Boyega, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie and Jason Mitchell. Mitchell in particular shows that his performance in Straight Outta Compton was no fluke, delivering dialogue that could have been heavy handed coming from a lesser actor’s mouth. As with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, this has exciting cinematography and editing, capturing the mood of each scene in how the camera moves around the motel.
The film also has some interesting ideas to explore as it traverses stories that centre around the Algiers Motel incident during the Detroit Uprising of 1967. It communicates an oft-unheard aspect of why people are willing to destroy their own neighborhoods during a riot. It shows the power of the black church as a literal sanctuary from police violence. It critiques the politics of Motown as an all black label that heavily targeted a white audience for success. And of course, it spends a significant amount of its run time depicting how police terror against black Americans happens and the mentality it creates in its victims. It’s unfortunate that the film presents outs for white audiences to say, “well I would have been one of the not-racist cops,” but it’s not as bad in that regard as The Help and overall it has a much larger problem; this should have been a miniseries.
On the film side of contemporary media about racism, Detroit doesn’t stack up against any of its competitors. It’s not as jawbreakingly intense as 12 Years a Slave. It doesn’t create a subversive narrative primarily about black identity and the struggles therein like Django. It doesn’t achieve near the horror that Get Out was able to with much less on-screen violence. It doesn’t maintain a coherent narrative focus like Selma. And its political message is often unfocused, making 13th a better film to watch on the subject.
But it’s the miniseries of late that really reveal how this was a missed opportunity. Both OJ Made in America and The People Vs OJ Simpson undertook the sprawling, multifaceted narrative of racism with more detail and more effectiveness because of the medium in which they were presented. Mark Boal’s script for Detroit could have served as a good baseline for the different aspects they could cover in 8 to 10 episodes, but here, it feels rushed, lessening the needed impact for each punctuating moment.
On television, a full episode could have been dedicated to the Great Migration and White Flight, to the blind-pig incident, and later to the political and legal ramifications of the events at the Algiers Motel. The characters who only get a few short scenes to make an impact here could have been better fleshed out. This event is so ripe for cinematic telling, and the film we’ve been given just doesn’t hold up as well as it needs to. It’s not a bad movie, but we’ve come to expect more, which leaves this as disappointment.