Kathryn Bigelow (the first woman to ever win an Oscar in the Best Director category) gives her all to capturing a critical incident from the urban race riots of the late 60s. But despite using most of her Oscar-winning team from The Hurt Locker, this time she provides more heat than light.
Set in the city of Detroit (Michigan) in 1967–when much of America still thought of it as the musical marvel Motown — Detroit is long and brutal, but ultimately too duplicitous and confusing to carry the weight of its extraordinary historical relevance. Sad to say, this time Bigelow has let us all down. (JLH: 3.5/5)
Review by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner
Sometime after dark on the night of July 25, 1967, Detroit police officers, Michigan state troopers, and members of the Michigan Army National Guard thought they heard shots fired from the Algiers Motel. Since members of Detroit’s African American community had already been rioting for almost 48 hours by that point, nerves were frayed and tempers were short. Heavily armed, they stormed the Algiers Motel (which was located close to where GM–General Motors–had its worldwide headquarters at that time), and by daylight three young African American men were dead.
In 1968, Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Hersey published a widely distributed book called The Algiers Motel Incident based on interviews with many of the individuals who had been in and around the Algiers Motel on this infamous night. There were several trials, but no one was ever convicted for killing Carl Cooper, Auburey Pollard, and/or Fred Temple, and after awhile, the details were lost in the sands of time.
However, in the wake of outrage over the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2013 and riots after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson (MO) in 2014, and the growing visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, a fiftieth anniversary film about the Algiers Motel “incident” seemed to be an imperative. And when I learned that such a film was in development — to be directed by Kathryn Bigelow based on a script by Mark Boal — I cheered. Surely, if anyone could bring the highest possible cinematic skills to this essential moment in American history, it was the team who had already brought us The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.
So it is with both sadness and confusion that I must report that Detroit misses its mark. The direction is uneven and the screenplay has huge holes. The urban riots of 1967 in general, and the Algiers Motel incident in particular, definitely deserve better.
Of course there are many positive things I could say about Detroit. I doubt it is possible for Bigelow and Boal to make a “bad” film, and by the standards of our day, this one is better than most (far better, for example, than Christopher Nolan’s tedious Dunkirk which currently reigns as #1 at the box office).
But sometimes good is not good enough. In this case, with so much at stake, Detroit needed to be a great film… and Detroit is not a great film. Furthermore, the violence in Detroit is so excessive, so painfully brutal, that I doubt many people will see it. Specifically, I doubt that many women will see Detroit — and it pains me to say I cannot urge women to see Detroit — pains me personally precisely because I campaigned so hard for both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. (Read more on this below.)
With Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow has, in essence, dissed all of the women who cheered for her the night she became the first woman in history to win a Best Director Oscar. Why did it have to be this way?
Detroit is graced with two terrific, breakout performances by John Boyega (who plays “Melvin Dismukes” (a security guard inadvertently drawn into the chaos at the Algiers Motel on the fateful night) and Algee Smith (who plays “Larry Reed” the lead singer in an up-and-coming Motown group who sees dreams vanish before his eyes on the night that was supposed to be his big break-out).
As portrayed by Boyega and Smith on screen, both Melvin Dismukes and Larry Reed feel like real people with back stories and character arcs that are credible, convincing and tremendously poignant.
But the film is stolen away from them by British actor Will Poulter, as a Detroit police officer who is so evil, toxic and venomous that it is impossible to believe that he actually existed… and, in fact, he didn’t.
One of my rules as a film critic is to always enter every theatre as dumb as possible, so I am as open as I can be to the story that is being told in this particular film by these particular filmmakers. Of course, no one is a “blank slate” (especially after 65 years on Planet Earth, over 50 of which have been spent at the movies), and in my case, I had actually lived through the riots in Newark, NJ that directly preceded the riots in Detroit. (The riots in Newark lasted from July 12 to July 17. The riots in Detroit started a week later on July 23.)
But even so, I took pains not to read anything about Detroit before I went into the screening room. So while I did not know for a fact that Krauss (Will Poulter’s character) was a “composite,” I certainly felt it in my gut. For all his research, Mark Boal had presented Kathryn Bigelow with a cardboard villain, and instead of throwing the screenplay back at him for rewrites, Bigelow upped the ante, directing Poulter as if he were the heir apparent for Anthony Hopkin’s Oscar as “Hannibal Lecter” in The Silence of the Lambs. No. No! No!! No!!!
This is so wrong for so many reasons that I cannot continue on with positive comments about Barry Ackroyd’s kinetic cinematography, Jeremy Hindle’s deft production design, Paul N. J. Ottosson’s extraordinary sound design, and all the other technical elements we have come to expect from a film by Kathryn Bigelow.
No, I cannot stay silent… Not even for Kathryn Bigelow… Especially not for Kathryn Bigelow. She has let all of us down — including me — and it hurts.
© Jan Lisa Huttner (7/27/17) FF2 Media
Top Photo: John Boyega as “Melvin Dismukes,” a real security guard inadvertently drawn into the chaos at the Algiers Motel on the fateful night.
Center Photo: Will Poulter as “Krauss,” a “composite character” who stands in for blind, ignorant racism and has as much “reality” as Hannibal Lecter’s infamous fava beans 🙁
Bottom Photo: Algee Smith as “Larry Reed” faces an empty auditorium. Reed, the real lead singer in The Dramatics (an up-and-coming Motown group) saw his dreams vanish before his eyes on the night that was supposed to be his big break-out.
Final Photo: Kaitlyn Dever as “Karen” (foreground) and Hannah Murray as “Julie” (background) survive Krauss’s brutal interrogation, but we never know who they are or why they happen to be in the Algiers Motel that night in the first place.
Photo Credits: Francois Duhamel. Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Yes… but barely 🙁
In 2009/2010, during the long build-up to the OscarBowl on 3/7/10, many stupid things were said about Kathryn Bigelow — personally and professionally — and those of us who were actively campaigning for her (Yes, Virginia: People “campaign” for Oscars just like for every other major prize.) had to keep fighting real and imaginary alligators. When March 7, 2010 finally arrived, I was so nervous that I had to stay home so I could grieve in private if need be. Really. Who knew?
One thing many people said that was not true was that Bigelow had never made any films about women that starred strong actresses in kickass roles. Anyone who had actually looked at her filmography would know for a fact that this was not true. But what was true was that The Hurt Locker itself had no significant female characters. And so, when Bigelow became the first woman to receive a Best Director Oscar, she won for a film with virtually no women in it. One could say this was “ironic,” I prefer to think of it as “indicative.”
I ended up writing three stories about all of this in HuffPo, the most laborious of which debunked the “Bigelow Endorses Torture” myth. All of this cost me weeks of effort and taught me much about cyberspace trolls (useful for putting what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016 in context), but I gave up on HuffPo after that and never submitted another post.
Sadly, Bigelow seems to have learned her lesson too. Even though there are two very important female characters in Detroit, Bigelow abuses them shamefully by ogling their bodies on screen without ever providing coherent back stories, motivations, or character arcs. If I weren’t already so angry about the fact that she implicitly elevated Will Poulter as Krauss over John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes and Algee Smith as Larry Reed, this would enrage me. But it is simply what it is = more bad judgment.
So yes, technically, Detroit passes the Bechdel-Wallace Test because Kaitlyn Dever as “Karen” and Hannah Murray as “Julie” talk to each other a little bit about stuff like money, but really? No. And let’s not even ask why all of the African American women in Detroit end up on the margins of this story. The fact of it is just too painful. I must move on now before I start to cry 🙁