Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit

“Exploding across the stressed out summer of 2017 like a powder keg thrown into a room that’s already on fire, Kathryn Bigelow’s hectic but harrowing docudrama account of the 1967 Detroit riots is inevitably as concerned with the persistence of systemic racism as it is with its past,” begins David Ehrlich at IndieWire. He finds “there’s something broadly instructive about a major director choosing this moment to make a movie about this episode in the fraught history of American race relations. With Ferguson still so close in the rearview mirror, with Eric Garner still so fresh in so many minds, not even the whitest of viewers (or filmmakers) can look at Detroit and pretend that we ever really left. Detroit is extremely powerful when its wandering eye is trained on the moment at hand, when it’s performing a bracingly direct meditation on white violence and black fear. The film only runs into trouble when it clumsily attempts to contextualize the events of its horrific second act, as Bigelow and her Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal struggle to frame a tragic incident that was shaped by centuries of context.”

Variety’s Owen Gleiberman wants us to know that “this is no comforting drama of social protest. It’s closer to a hair-trigger historical nightmare, one you can’t tear yourself away from. Bigelow . . . has created a turbulent, live-wire panorama of race in America that feels like it’s all unfolding in the moment, and that’s its power. We’re not watching tidy, well-meaning lessons—we’re watching people driven, by an impossible situation, to act out who they really are.”

“An uprising that lasted five days is too big a subject even for a 2½ hour film,” writes Matt Prigge for Metro US. “So Bigelow/Boal focus on one of the more horrific stories buried under the rubble: the so-called ‘Algiers Motel Incident.’ On the third day, twelve civilians—ten black, two white—were tortured, physically and mentally, by white cops who suspected one of them of firing sniper shots at the National Guard from the window of the run-down motel. There was no sniper . . . The ‘incident,’ which eats up about an hour of the middle, may be the greatest thing [Bigelow’s] ever made.”

Screen’s Tim Grierson: “Bigelow immerses us in the action almost immediately, as Barry Ackroyd’s jittery camerawork captures the bedlam and danger of a full-scale riot from an intimate, street-level perspective. The combination of an aggrieved, enraged black population and a well-armed, hostile white police force is a recipe for disaster, and Detroit makes viewers feel the heat of the flames and the fury of the participants.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy will grant that Detroit is “intense and physically powerful in the way it conveys its atrocious events,” but “the film nonetheless remains short on complexity, as if it were enough simply to provoke and outrage the audience. It's a grim tale with no catharsis.”

Mike Ryan at Uproxx: “Bigelow has a knack for building tension to an impossible level where an audience member is looking for any sort of relief—think of the scenes involving bomb diffusion in The Hurt Locker, or the scene of trailing Bin Laden’s courier in Zero Dark Thirty. . . . But with Detroit, once the horrors of that night have ended, the repercussions are far from over. And Detroit is both very aware of this and also doesn’t quite know what to do with itself once it ends the documentation of that terrible night. This is not a movie with a tidy ending. And probably rightfully so.”

“Of course, whether a white director and a white writer are the people who should be telling this story at all is a matter of debate, especially at a time when the struggle for representation on- and off-screen has become one of the film industry’s most pressing issues,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “So Detroit comes laden with a set of built-in problems—perhaps even red flags. But nonetheless, Detroit is such a gripping and ultimately shattering piece of cinema that it merits seeing—albeit with a skeptical eye.”

Detroit is an impeccably-rendered and pivotal battle in a much longer, shattering war,” writes Claudia Puig at TheWrap.

From Mark Boal’s piece for Vulture, “Why I Wrote Detroit”:

I chose this story from the ’60s in part because the decade evokes such lively and contradictory associations. The summer of 1967 witnessed two of the worst civil disturbances in American history—first Newark, then Detroit. It is troubling even now to watch the news coverage of all that violence and destruction, but make no mistake about it—this was an uprising, a rebellion. This was black America lashing out against an entrenched culture of repression and bigotry. And yet the far more widely remembered (and celebrated) spectacle of rebellion from that same moment in time is of the Summer of Love, all those hippies, mostly white, joyfully grooving out in San Francisco. By now, the love-potion stuff has run its course, diffused into little more than an advertising trope, but the events in Detroit are hard evidence of a cultural crisis that remains unresolved, of two Americas that still don’t know quite how to deal with each other.

Michel Martin interviews Bigelow for NPR. Meantime, the TIFF Cinematheque series Kathryn Bigelow: On the Edge is on in Toronto through August 15. And on the latest episode of The Cinephiliacs, Manohla Dargis talks a bit about championing Bigelow in a 2009 profile for the New York Times.

Updates, 7/26: “Bigelow is an outlier among the American filmmakers of her generation,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A.V. Club, “not because she’s a woman who mostly makes movies about men, but because she has a serious background in semiotics-focused, theory-intensive, deconstructionist 1970s film and arts studies—the action director who rehabbed lofts with Philip Glass while studying under Susan Sontag. Her films always seem reluctant to self-articulate or admit their own smarts, as though it would dispel the thrill of the text. Thus, they leave themselves open to misinterpretation.” Detroit “comes across as incomplete, its metaphors, bit characters, traumas, and tacked-on subplots never threading together into a larger canvas—a ‘big picture’ movie where only the most tightly cornered, claustrophobic moments seem finished.”

For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “the heart of the movie is not in fact in the Algiers Motel: it is in the music of the Detroit soul group the Dramatics, whose early career is bound up with the tragedy of the riot. They are shown losing their early shot at fame: about to go on stage, the theatre is cleared by the police. And then, after the horrendous ordeal of the Algiers Motel, which is shown to affect band member Larry Reed (Algee Smith), the band are summoned in the early hours for an audition at the recording studio. It is an amazing scene, in that it appears to offer the Dramatics and perhaps even Detroit itself a miraculous kind of redemption.”

“I don’t find Bigelow at fault for approaching this story as a white woman, at least in the scope of the Algiers episode, but when the film attempts to make a political statement about the incident and the riots, both she and the film falter.” Ira Madison III explains at the Daily Beast.

“I teach at Wayne State, a public university about a mile down Woodward from where the Algiers used to be,” writes John Patrick Leary for Guernica. “When I taught the Algiers Motel Incident this spring, the episode felt uncanny, both acutely familiar and a thousand miles away.” Via Movie City News.

Update, 7/27: “In a horror movie, the monster is inevitably the center of interest,” writes A. O. Scott in the New York Times, “and once the first body in the motel falls, Detroit begins to trade its vivid sense of nuance . . . for bluntness and sensationalism. A complex, dreadful piece of history becomes an undialectical ordeal of viciousness and victimhood. The film opens with the assertion that in Detroit and elsewhere in the mid-1960s, ‘change had to come’ and ‘the question was when and how.’ But the promise implied in that ‘how’ is one that Detroit, for all its impressive craft and unimpeachable intention, proves unable to fulfill. It is curious that a movie set against a backdrop of black resistance and rebellion—however inchoate and self-destructive its expression may have been—should become a tale of black helplessness and passivity. The white men, the decent ones as much as the brutes, have the answers, the power, the agency.”

Updates, 7/29: “I was disturbed so deeply by what I witnessed that I left the theater in tears,” writes Angelica Jade Bastien at “It wasn’t the relentless violence inflicted upon black bodies or the fiery devastation of the riots ripping apart Detroit but the emptiness behind these moments that got under my skin. Watching Detroit I realized that I’m not interested in white perceptions of black pain. White filmmakers, of course, have every right to make stories that highlight the real and imagined histories of racism and police brutality that pointedly affect Black America. There are, of course, a litany of films by white filmmakers about subject matter unique to the black experience that I find moving—The Color Purple comes to mind. But Steven Spielberg’s film was based on a novel by Alice Walker and produced by Quincy Jones. Detroit was directed, written, produced, shot, and edited by white creatives who do not understand the weight of the images they hone in on with an unflinching gaze.”

“I sincerely hope that there’s a five-hour cut of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit somewhere—a version with cleaner through-lines, deeper characterizations, and a more organic narrative,” writes Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “But the version that we currently have—a messy, troubling beast clocking in at around 150 minutes—is riveting in its own way.”

“Like many films that try to achieve an epic yet granular adventure, Detroit is imperfect—riveting, yes, but imperfect,” writes Michael Sragow for Film Comment. “There’s a basic imbalance in the material. . . . Presumably for legal reasons, the filmmakers turn the cops into composites. They lack the other characters’ authority and depth.”

“The story sprawls out of [Bigelow’s] control in places where pinpoint control is needed,” finds Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “And the movie’s wrap-up, where we learn what happened to the police officers charged in the murders of the three victims—their punishment, or lack thereof, won’t come as a surprise—feels hasty and unshaped. Detroit is the type of movie we need right now. But there’s no shame in wishing that it were a better one.”

Detroit is a work that bleeds for its audience,” writes Michael Snydel at the Film Stage. “It surges with a visible anxiety not only in atmosphere—a smog of racial paranoia—but a vibrating self-consciousness in doing this story justice and capturing the extent of ongoing oppression. But in attempting to serve as a historical horror film, modern commentary on police brutality, and meditation on trauma, Detroit is a well-made overcompensation that verges on rendering itself totally pointless.”

For, Nick Allen talks with actors Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, and Algee Smith “about Bigelow’s unusual directing process in orchestrating this true-life story, why they trusted her to tell a narrative that’s outside of her perspective, the stories behind filming some of their best scenes and more.”

Update, 7/30: “Bigelow's genre shift” between Acts One and Two “is itself the film's most powerful political statement,” argues Eric Henderson at Slant. “The newsreel style of the early sequence keeps audiences engaged by scope, and skeptics at arm's length in the knowledge that demonstrations in America circa 2017 ‘aren't like that anymore, at least.’ The debasement and cold-blooded murder that dominates the film after the shift doesn't let a single viewer off the hook, and Bigelow almost seems to be arguing that it's a direct byproduct of how easily this country processes (in other words, waves off) its own complicity in nurturing racism, indeed making it part of its national identity.”

Updates, 8/1: “Bigelow and Boal don’t bring much moral complexity to Detroit,” writes David Edelstein at Vulture. “They don’t illuminate the psyches of the cops or suggest the fundamental feeling of weakness that drives people to violence. . . . What Bigelow does—incomparably—is put us in that room with those people at that moment. She induces a feeling of powerlessness that’s beyond our capacity to imagine on our own, and she keeps it going through the courtroom scenes and closing credits and beyond, as we return to a world where the same scenario is playing in an endless loop.”

“Bigelow’s technique is ultimately better than the movie,” writes K. Austin Collins at the Ringer. “Boal’s writing is holding it back. Boal, who began his career as a journalist, knows how to collect true, well-reported stories and fashion them into plausible collections of scenes. And he knows, thanks to probably too many Screenplay 101 guides, how to give his characters their proper ‘arcs.’ But he doesn’t seem to have much of an imagination about his characters’ psychologies.”

“Boyega is quite something,” writes Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. “He is a Londoner, aged twenty-five, and already a figure of distinction. The point at which he removed his storm trooper’s helmet, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), was a pivotal moment in recent popular culture . . . Detroit is a far more solemn enterprise, but, once again, Boyega is the watchful eye at the heart of a roiling tempest.”

Updates, 8/2: “Death resides in each glance, and further death, potentially in each returned glance,” writes Ray Pride for Newcity Film. “And the consistent belittling, ‘othering’ language from the worst of the racist cops: ‘I got nothing against you people.’ Language is as much a truncheon as the whip from a pistol. Two young white girls visiting from Ohio get the most pointed lines, nearly on-the-nose, able, for a time, to have a voice where the others cannot speak up. ‘It’s 1967, asshole,’ resonates as much as ‘Is this fucking 2017?’”

For the new Variety cover story, Brent Lang tells the tale of Detroit’s making, beginning with the obvious question. “How could Bigelow — a white woman raised just ouside San Franicsco by middle-class parents and educated at Columbia University — understand and illuminate that kind of raw experience? Should she even try? ‘I thought, “Am I the perfect person to tell this story? No,”’ says Bigelow. ‘However, I’m able to tell this story, and it’s been 50 years since it’s been told.’ Ultimately, Bigelow opted to put her clout as the most famous female filmmaker in the world on the line, and convinced Annapurna, an indie production company with big ambitions to become a full-fledged studio, to back the risky picture.”

Lang also talks with security guard Melvin Dismukes, who “tried to play peacemaker as police and National Guardsmen stormed the Algiers Motel on July 25, 1967.” And he says, “It is 99.5% accurate as to what went down at the Algiers and in the city at the time. I had never felt open to telling my side of the story until I met Kathryn, but she really listened to me and promised to get the truth out, and I think she did an amazing job.”

And as part of the package, Jem Aswad talks with Martha Reeves, who was slated to perform that night at the Fox Theatre—but that never happened: “We went outside, and tanks were up and down Woodward Avenue in front of the Fox. It was panic—panic.” Further in, Aswad talks with Otis Williams, the sole surviving original member of The Temptations: “I was home with a young lady I was seeing, and [nearby] the National Guard was firing off a .50-caliber machine gun! Pow, pow, pow! They were spraying the area, and we laid down on the floor because I didn’t want to become a statistic. When it was safe to go out, I drove down 12th Street to a lot of the places we used to go and have fun, and it was like a ghost town.” And Questlove of The Roots: “[W]e wanted to make a song that reflects not only the times of 1967 but also 2017—and hopefully not the future.”

For the New York Times,Bigelow walks us through a scene (2’04”) and tells John Eligon that when Boal handed her the screenplay, she realized “that I have this opportunity to expose this story in the hope that maybe it either generates a conversation, begins to generate a conversation and/or encourages more stories like this to come forward. To do nothing was not an answer.”

Updates, 8/3:Detroit is a punishment made with care and conscientiousness,” writes Ty Burr in the Boston Globe. “Personally, I came out of Detroit angrier than I’ve been at a movie in ages, and not entirely the way director Kathryn Bigelow probably wants.”

Detroit begins with an astute portrait of the social factors and individual tensions that ignite to blow the lid off the powder keg of a city’s bundled frustrations,” writes Marjorie Baumgarten in the Austin Chronicle. “Disappointingly, Detroit then shifts gears to focus on a couple of loose cannons and, as a result, diminishes the intensity of the overall explosion.”

In the Stranger,Marc Mohan argues that “if you can watch Detroit without thinking of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, or any of the other victims of racist violence masquerading as law enforcement, then, as the bumper sticker says, you're not paying attention.”

In the East Bay Express,Kelly Vance calls Detroit “one of the most meaningful films of 2017.”

For IndieWire, Kate Erbland talks with Boyega: “For me, if you are serious about this and if you are approaching this with respect and integrity, you’ll be willing to listen, you’ll have the right people around you, and also you will give the actors—especially the black actors on set—the best opportunity to portray these characters. [Bigelow] did all of that. She approached it with respect, she had integrity.”

Updates, 8/4: For the Seattle Weekly’s Robert Horton, “it seems to me that what Bigelow does with the premise dates back to her conceptual-art days. The shakedown sequence in Detroit goes on so long and contains so much excruciating punishment that it turns into something close to ’60s-era guerrilla theater, where an unsuspecting audience is put through the wringer. Brian De Palma used this technique, while simultaneously satirizing it, in his 1970 film Hi Mom!

“Maybe it's just impossible for even a scene-setter as skilled as Bigelow to do anything new in a courtroom,” writes Chris Klimek for NPR. “The coda she chooses, showing Larry Reed's resolution to continue his musical career in a far more modest fashion than before, has nothing to do with consoling the audience after 135 minutes of trauma. It's about Reed becoming a militant for peace. It's about him making a choice to survive. If nothing else, Detroit gets you thinking about how those might be the same thing.”

“What we see in Detroit is so shocking and appalling that it is perhaps unreasonable to blame the film for being blinded in rage by it,” writes Will Leitch for Paste. “But, alas, blinded it is.”

Detroit feels like a hazing experience topped off with a patronizing wallop of courtroom procedural,” writes Eric Lavallée at Ioncinema. “And this is where Bigelow and Boal fail—they don’t connect the dots between the extremists and the ignorant shield white privilege affords.”

Updates, 8/5: For Ashley Clark, writing for 4Columns, “Detroit’s bludgeoning insistence on graphically depicting state violence plays like overkill; a semi-pornography of abuse that can only numb or, viewed by the wrong eyes, titillate. In one of the darkest moments I’ve experienced in a cinema for some time, I caught myself wondering whether the horror shown in the Algiers is so detailed, so unremitting, that white supremacists might actually enjoy watching it.”

“For the Blue Lives contingency there are a few nice cops to contrast the bad apples,” notes Nick Pinkerton in Reverse Shot, “and a furtive white looter to diminish however slightly the racial dimension of events. This is not to say that there weren’t decent cops or white looters, but that the way these figures are deployed smacks awkwardly of the ass-covering tokenism that is currently de rigueur. Cultural dialogue has of late been deluged by righteous tut-tutting from an army of laptop moralists who have seized on pop media as an outlet for political soapboxing, and Bigelow here seems chastened by her last encounter with them. Curious as it is to say of a movie about a race riot and its after-effects, and which is deeply invested in documenting the deep-tissue, rib-cracking reality of police brutality, Detroit lacks a sense of real, seething hate.”

“I don’t object to Bigelow’s use of a real event as the occasion for seeking cinematic thrills and offering them to the audience,” writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation. “It’s what she does; and you can’t reasonably ask her to stop, when she’s able to make you sweat out the night in the claustrophobia of the Algiers Motel without your thinking for a moment that you, at least, could get up and leave. But her instinct for the visceral overflows her chosen subject, making a mess of the themes of Detroit.

“The meticulous dramatization of events intended to shock strikes me as the moral equivalent of pornography,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “Just as the real raid and the torture were carried out by the police, the recreated scenes were carried out by Bigelow. In that sense, she inevitably puts herself in the position of the police by bringing the raid, willfully and at her own behest—under her own moment-by-moment decision-making—into being again.”

“I fully appreciate the polarized response to the film, which should not come as any surprise,” writes Scott Kurashige, author of The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit, in a guest post for the University of California Press. “It offers one perspective on one of the many stories about Detroit we should know. One thing worth highlighting, however, is that the film is part of a cultural shift toward portraying the events of 1967 as a ‘rebellion’ rather than a ‘riot.’ Indeed, it generally gets right that the police were a primary source of the lawlessness that threatened innocent civilians.

Introducing a ranked list of Bigelow’s films for Slant, Chuck Bowen argues that she’s “obsessed with violence as an annihilator of individuality, often implying that extremists yearn for this effacement so as to connect with a primal and potentially collective id. There’s a straight line running from the vampires of Near Dark to the bank-robbing surfers of Point Break to Lenny and the mystery killer of Strange Days to Staff Sergeant William James of The Hurt Locker to Maya of Zero Dark Thirty. These are isolated wolves, whose gifts and egotism divorce them from a society to which they feel superior, as they seek a higher visceral purity.”

Update, 8/8: The Algiers sequence “is the focus of the film, the reason Detroit exists,” grants Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed. “But in terms of its aims to elucidate and create conversation, it's not nearly as effective as the way the film ends.”

Update, 8/12:Detroit is “an astonishingly visceral film in which Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal want to you to feel what so many of us good liberal white folks often claim to intellectually understand,” writes Sean Burns. “Sure, you probably think you might know all you need to about racism and police brutality in America, but Bigelow wants to knock you out of your smug comfort zone . . . Yes, the movie’s harrowing middle hour is almost too excruciating to endure. It upsets viewers and sends them streaming for the exits because it’s supposed to. This is the most controversial movie of the summer because it deserves to be.”

Update, 8/15:Bill Graham, Brian Roan, and Michael Snydel discuss Detroit at the Film Stage (98’24”).

Update, 8/18: “Kathryn Bigelow sits very straight and considers events last weekend in Charlottesville,” writes Danny Leigh in the Guardian. “‘It was an atrocity,’ she says. ‘I don’t know where we go from here.’ Does the crisis of American racism scare her? She repeats the question back as if peering at it under glass. “Does it scare me? Does it scare me? . . . Fear is not an option,’ she says finally. ‘So I feel compelled to do what I can in response. And using the media I have available to do that.’”

Update, 8/20: “Would Detroit have been a more worthy, nuanced film had it been directed by Ava DuVernay or Barry Jenkins?” asks Nicholas Laskin in Little White Lies. “It’s tough to say. Certainly, they may have brought a perspective that Bigelow, for all her skills as a filmmaker, simply cannot access. Detroit undeniably has its merits: a virtuosic visual language, some strong performances, and an admittedly poignant final shot among them. All the same it’s hard not to wish the film didn’t feel compelled to turn its characters of color into bland ciphers. Alas, this is the Detroit we have for now—flawed, incendiary, bogged down by a desultory third act that dissolves into familiar courtroom drama theatrics. It’s the rare cinematic history lesson that almost inadvertently doubles as a cautionary tale.”

Updates, 8/27: “Just as Point Break plunged its audience into breakneck chases,” writes the Observer’s Mark Kermode, “and Strange Days toyed with virtual reality (a medium recently explored by Bigelow in the ivory-poachers documentary short The Protectors), so Detroit is an immersive experience which places the viewer at the heart of this unfolding chaos. It’s a sprawling, volatile melee of a movie, excellently edited by William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, who jostle their way through a crowd of stories to focus in on one claustrophobic flashpoint.”

“I found the ending of Detroit a little unsatisfying,” writes Henry K. Miller in Sight & Sound. “Perhaps it ought to be: justice was not done, ‘racial strife in the United States’ hasn’t gone away, and the bitterness and lack of resolution are appropriate. However, the film’s momentum is dissipated in the shift from what might well be real time during the Algiers Motel scenes to what amounts to a montage sequence covering the aftermath, but missing out some crucial links in the chain. The trial is not brought to life, as the earlier scenes are, but sketched, and Bigelow loses the focus on character that is the strength of the body of the film, without expanding its scope to take in the incident’s political repercussions. But in a sense this disappointment is testament to how rich the characterizations are, and how powerful her film is.”

Updates, 8/31: “Bigelow and Boal have chosen to focus on exploring one incident in excruciatingly close detail, but in doing so it feels like they have lost sight of the bigger picture,” finds Phil Concannon.

“I was out there marching against Vietnam,” Bigelow tells Donald Clarke in the Irish Times. “In the 1960s and early 1970s in New York it was a very charged time. I felt that collective voice would sustain itself. But now it feels tragically silent.”

Update, 10/14: “In typical Hollywood fashion,” writes Mark Jay for Jacobin, “Bigelow turns a political event into a moral parable: victimized, angry black youth face off against rabidly racist white police officers. This version of events isn’t new: her film largely reproduces the tropes used throughout the 1960s and 1970s to repress urban rebellions and justify the security regime that followed.”

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