Second Sight: The Horror of Detroit

At the center of Kathryn Bigelow's historical exposition is a horror film that rivals many greats of the genre. It accomplishes this not with supernatural terrors or jump scares. The evil in Bigelow's film is real. The events, while taken from various accounts, happened. In 1968, America was a country that was tearing itself apart, long before political ideologies dominated social media discourse. The Detroit riots were a boiling point, a physical manifestation of rage from discrimination and the subsequent conjuring of ghosts from pre-civil war nightmares. These concepts walk the burning streets of Bigelow's haunted metropolis, revealing injustice after injustice, casual murder, and a precious few moments of hope. 

It is this lack of hope that pervades an auspicious, yet redundant attempt to comment on the current state of race relations in the United States. Featuring some of the most intense camera work of the year, a wonderfully repugnant performance by Will Poulter, and one of the most gripping central acts in history, Bigelow squanders these elements, hiding the horror story in between two unnecessary book ends that introduce rioters as violent opportunists and abolish the darkness of the subject matter with white characters who contradict their own actions in the interest of justice. Mark Boal's script is remarkable when it is in the thick of things, and yet, none of the characters, aside from Poulter's villain seem real. They are ideas, both the hope for a progressive future and nameless black youths whose controversial deaths have become the center of national activism on both sides of the divide. These truths beg the question: Why? 

Films that approach the subject of race have a multitude of paths to explore. Jeff Nichols' outstanding Loving focused on love and family while Spike Lee's epic Do the Right Thing used the microcosm of a New York borough as a petri dish for simmering racial tension. Bigelow's approach mimic's Paul Haggis' Crash, not in its cross cutting “Everyone's Racist” narrative, but in its arm's length approach to furthering the discussion. It is 2017. As evident in Charlottesville last weekend, no one in America believes that racism does not continue to be an issue. The audience knows this and yet, the manner in which Detroit is presented assumes that the viewer needs another reminder of the past, rather than showing something different. Of course, there were and are white police officers who stand against brutality and racism every day. Of course, there are stories from the Detroit riots that involve charity, goodwill, and unity. However, these concepts are merely whispers as Bigelow spins everything towards atrocities at The Algiers.

Despite the many problems with this film, The Algiers sequence is undeniably harrowing. It is one of 2017's most memorable sequences and could garner nominations during awards season. Initially the blocking, dialogue, and framing seem confusing, until the realization hits that Bigelow's intent was to mimic the power of fear to disorient and bewilder. In hindsight, the brilliance of this scene is how it transcends typical torture scenarios with a prolonged, meandering sense of brutality. Not only are these young people victims due to their race, they are victims because their captors have all the time in the world. If anything, this is Detroit's greatest notion, the idea that it is not simply a racist gang of cops that are the enemy, but the system itself that allows for things such as this to transpire, an idea that is thinly reflected in an awkward coda that steps beyond the intensity of the Algiers segment to transform in a half-baked court room drama that serves no purpose, other than to continue Bigelow's manifesto that racism is indeed evil and unfair. 

Ultimately, Detroit is a well-made, misguided attempt at showcasing something that is alive and well throughout America, from the streets of a major city, to a Virginia college town, and to the halls of the highest offices of power. The tragedy is that Detroit manages to only retread these realizations rather than delve into the complexities involved, by exploring different aspects of one of the darkest nights in the history of the United States by filming in the city and conversing with its natives. While budget and the removal of Michigan’s film incentives surely effected this decision, a film of this nature demands respectful authenticity, rather than traditional Hollywood telescoping from ivory towers of privilege. Sadly, this is yet another hollow attempt at progress that understands perfectly how to show evil and yet can't offer any insight into how to defeat it.

 -Kyle Jonathan