Reality is relative. We are slaves to our eyes and our minds, and therefore slaves to our individual realities. But every now and then we are reminded of the inescapable truth that every single one of us shares one reality. This reality, now at its most topsy-turvy in 2017, is good enough a reason to buy a ticket to see our fantasies unwind. For the most part, cinema has been kind to me during this crazy year. My favorite releases so far have left a smile on my face, not to mention a glimmer of hope for the future of good, original, and genuinely exciting cinema. Alas, I write this piece without an ounce of happiness within me, nor a shred of enjoyment from what I have just seen.
I am tired, angry, shocked, and sickened, but more importantly, I am ashamed. The cause of it all? Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” a dramatization of the 1967 12th Street Riot, focusing primarily on the infamous Algiers Motel incident. As with other great period pieces, Bigelow’s film holds a mirror up to us as a reminder of who we are as a species on this planet. It provokes, challenges, and impacts on a level that is almost unspeakable. I’ve seen films like “Detroit” before, but my experience with it was so overwhelmingly singular that I felt no traditional review would do my feelings justice.
However, I would be remiss in my duties as a critic to at least sum up some of my feelings on the film itself. The first 20 to 30 minutes were fittingly, yet exhaustingly, cacophonous. Bigelow illustrates the chaos of 12th Street with her trademark documentary-style approach, employing woozy camerawork to sell the harshness of the setting. It’s technically impressive, but it does little to prepare the audience for what eventually becomes the film’s main focus. This results in an imperfect structure, one that pads the runtime a bit too much with no clear objective until Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal settle on one perspective. When this happens, Bigelow pulls a fast one on you, which sent the film skyrocketing in my estimation.
Our subjects are introduced, namely Larry Reed (played with heart-wrenching soul by newcomer Algee Smith), lead singer of The Dramatics. The group becomes separated amongst the confusion of the riots, leading Larry and good friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) to take refuge at the Algiers Motel. Their peace is temporary of course, interrupted by a joke involving a toy gun that alerts city police and National Guardsmen to the scene. Before they know it, the boys are up against a wall, along with a few other black men and two young women who were commingling with them. They are harassed, threatened, and severely beaten by three white male cops eager to incriminate them for shooting at the lawmen.
The trigger for my discomfort wasn’t so much the inevitable violence, but in the portrayal of Philip Krauss, the head-honcho cop who does most of the talking and terrorizing. He is played with brazen menace by Will Poulter in a performance that makes every blockbuster villain look like the Grinch by comparison. The camera is so often drawn to Krauss that it could almost be mistaken for fetishization, but Bigelow is the last filmmaker I would identify with such a term. Krauss is as ugly as they come, a reminder that the Devil himself can take on many forms. “I’ve got nothing against you people,” he says to his victims. (Nails on a chalkboard.) While being forced to watch him for an hour, a number of thoughts entered my mind, immediately altering my opinion on what I initially thought was going to be a bit of a mess.
My first thought was imagining how some might see Krauss’ portrayal as a means of demonizing all white male police. This then morphed into pondering why some people would react this way, which brings me to the shame I felt during the remainder of my experience. Shame is not something we expect to feel watching any movie, and it makes perfect sense that people would detest a movie that filled them with such negativity. My shame is the shame that all white men feel to some degree when they see characters who look like them in the role of the antagonist, especially in a film where white men do not have a strong heroic presence. I felt ashamed to identify as a straight white male, a classification of people that will forever be linked to the immoral side of racial discrimination and oppression. Yet in my shame, I came to a realization that offered the slightest comfort.
There is no use in white men trying their best to suppress their guilt by abominating its factors or diminishing its effect on our egos. As history has shown us, it only perpetuates injustice. Look at what it’s doing to our current administration in the White House. Every time our president is revealed to have said or done something intolerable, it is brushed off as a joke, or even worse, a great news story. Krauss even delivers his own version of the phrase “locker room talk.” When he and two other cops face legal charges for their heinous violence, Krauss reassures one of them: “One minute should not define the rest of your life.” I could almost feel the bile rise in my throat. It was at that moment that I realized a simple truth: As white men, we must own our shame.
This means accepting our guilt as means of pushing for the peaceful future humanity has always dreamed of. By doing so, we must accept another truth, that we are not as masculine as we might like to be. With shame comes weakness, and with weakness comes the deflation of masculinity. There is no strength without knowing weakness. If we are to be a stronger, smarter, and more civilized species, we must first be able to understand and embrace that which makes us less than who we can be. If we are to help each other, we must accept that we are all capable of doing terrible things to each other. It is an inherently difficult step that we must take if we are to put an end to the senseless violence that “Detroit” depicts with such uncompromising brutality.
My reaction to the horror of Bigelow’s film is the most visceral I’ve had all year. I cannot say that I whole-heartedly like it. This is not a film you go to enjoy. Characters’ actions are utterly harrowing, and the consequences of those actions are even more disgusting than you might be willing to imagine. Of course, there is something to be said for the tears I shed, and the unbridled rage I felt when I hit my seat after a white reporter asked a black father how it feels to lose his son. For all the flaws in its narrative and structure, “Detroit” is the most effective film of 2017, and therefore one of the year’s best. It’s unrelenting power and maddening effect on the human psyche is a testament to cinema’s potential to create real change. If those in power are not working for a better tomorrow, we will always have art like this to inspire the masses. Go see this film.