At the Movies

Michael Wood

Kathryn Bigelow’s impressive new film, Detroit, is full of disturbing violence, but its most disturbing moment is entirely non-violent. It comes too late in the film to help in any way, and just in time to worry us. It is a sentence on a title card explaining that some of the facts in the historical situation at the heart of the film are still in dispute. We knew the movie was a movie, and had no problem with the insertion of documentary images into sequences played by actors and manifestly invented by a writer, the admirable Mark Boal. We knew the basic narrative was a reconstruction: how could it not be, if the facts were historical and we are seeing them now? In this sense even the immediate memories of actual persons involved in the recounted events would be reconstructed. In another sense we also knew we were in a fiction film because the film is full of fictions. The proposed reality of the story is littered with tricks and illusions. ‘We don’t bluff,’ one of the characters says. ‘This is Detroit.’ He says this in the midst of a major piece of bluffing.

So why is the title card so disturbing? Partly because of the absence of any indication of which facts are at issue. Given the manifest intention of the film to address urgent political and social questions, the effect of the card is to say: what you have seen is all true – except when it isn’t. Which would be fine if the work weren’t so vividly, precisely authoritative. The chief reason for the disturbance, then, has to do with the medium and this particular narrative structure. It’s not just that it’s hard to revise suddenly the status of a detailed interpretation, it’s that we can’t not have seen what a film has devoted so much of its energy to showing us. And we can’t not accept the order in which a film chooses to unfold its events. In Detroit we are all privy to a set of crimes before they come to trial, which in any real world is the case for only a small number of people.

The film opens with some rather preachy bits of text reminding us of the ‘migration’ of African-Americans towards jobs in the North and the difficulties of race relations. The lecturing effect is mitigated by the magnificent Jacob Lawrence paintings in the background, and effectively collapses when the text asserts that ‘change was inevitable.’ One major point of the movie is how little has changed since 1967, and Bigelow has said as much in interviews. Unless of course the phrase means that African-Americans were not going to be pushed around for ever, and that the riot framing the whole film was inevitable, but this no doubt involves more subtext than we are supposed to find.

The Detroit riot began in July 1967 after a round-up at an illegal nightclub, and escalated rapidly into burnings and lootings. In the film we see the police trying to deal with these events, politicians trying to calm the populace down, and we learn that a major danger is sniper fire from roofs and high windows. The effect is of a montage, not a newsreel but a high-quality movie put together magically out of real images of the time. The documentary footage – Governor George Romney declaring a state of emergency, for example – highlights the historical moment, but seems unreal compared with the rest of what we are seeing. The film at this point is fast and rich and lucid, and still setting a scene rather than tracing the adventures of individuals.

Then particular figures begin to stand out and return, and we enter the story of the Algiers Motel killings, already the subject of several books, including one by John Hersey published in 1968. A young cop fires at a looter, and defends himself not on the grounds that the victim was armed or even that he could have been, but that he might have done something else unlawful during the rioting. The victim later dies, and we think this may be an important part of the film’s plot. It is, but only because it sets up the cop for the main adventure, where he has the leading role. He is called Krauss – some of the names of the historical characters have been changed – and is played by Will Poulter, displaying an impeccable rage and an amazing mixture of self-control and self-indulgence.

Also in town a group of doo-wop singers seems to be about to get its first real chance with a live audience, but doesn’t because the spreading of the riot forces the theatre to close. The lead singer, Larry (Algee Smith), and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) take refuge in the Algiers Motel, where they hope sex may be a short-term substitute for fame, and the real story begins.

The prelude has one other important element. The residents at the motel have a discussion about race and how white people routinely subjugate black people. This seems sound enough until one black person pulls out a gun and shoots another to prove his point. There is shock and horror all around, even after the gun turns out to be a starter pistol and the target alive and well.

The gunman, Carl (Jason Mitchell), pleased with his effect, decides to pretend to be a sniper, and fires his pistol out of a window at a building across the street. This gestures summons, in turn, the Detroit Police, the National Guard and the Michigan State Police. The local police, represented by Krauss and two colleagues, line up all the people in the building and try to find out where the gun is. The line-up consists of two white girls from Ohio who were having a bit of risky fun, the two refugees from the doo-wop fiasco, and five other persons, all black (in reality, apparently, there were seven others). Carl is shot and killed by Krauss during the round-up. Remembering his earlier trouble with the looter, Krauss takes care to plant a knife on the floor next to the body: a clear sign of a killing in self-defence.

The film now spends forty minutes on the harrowing interrogation of these supposed witnesses. They must know where the sniper’s gun is, and there must be a gun because the policemen have assumed there is one. No one answers, and two mock deaths, eerie echoes of the joke with the starter pistol, are staged. A member of the line-up is taken into another room and is apparently – but not really – killed, pour encourager les autres. Then the most junior of the three policemen is instructed to take one of the witnesses and kill him, and does – he didn’t understand that the other deaths were just fear-inducing fakes. The last death occurs when the policemen have decided to give up on their pointless game and let the survivors go, provided they swear they have seen nothing. When one of them can’t do this, they kill him.

A lot of hitting and slamming goes on, the witnesses have bruises and blood all over them, but the final effect isn’t one of simple brutality or even undeniable racism, which is fuelled in part by the presence of the white girls in this wrong-coloured part of town. The policemen do seem to believe that their job, even their duty, consists in yelling at people, pushing them around, and feeling virtuous as they do it. They are petulant and stupid but the actors, under Bigelow’s subtle direction, also create the impression of men trapped in a role, so the real topic here is power that doesn’t need to account for itself, because there is nothing it can’t get away with. The topic is underlined even by the policemen who aren’t engaged in the murder or bullying of civilians, but trying to find out what has happened. They are morally and legally in the right, but you couldn’t tell this from their behaviour, since they yell like everyone else and treat their junior colleagues as if they were dirt. Is this a professional code or just a kind of licence? Do you behave like a monster because you must or just because you can?

Certainly some kind of immunity is confirmed by the trial. Two of the cops confess but since their Miranda rights weren’t read to them before they spoke, the judge rules their testimony inadmissible. The defence lawyer is seedy and ingenious, evil personified, and every black person in the courtroom knows what it is the white people are busy denying. Since we have seen what happened at the motel, we don’t just feel there is something wrong here, we know there is, and this is where my worry about the medium and the method began.

In American vigilante movies, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films or Charles Bronson’s Death Wish series, we see crimes being committed, and we see lawyers and law courts failing to exercise justice because they have not seen what we have seen. We know how feeble and wordy they are because we possess the cinematic truth. We are not wrong to despair of the law in these movies, but we are inclined to forget the huge element of fantasy in them. It’s easy to confuse a belief in the existence of a truth (someone killed this person, no doubt about it) with a belief in that truth’s openness to inspection (a court of law isn’t doing its job if it doesn’t behave like the omniscient narrator of a novel – John Hersey uses exactly this analogy in his book).

Detroit is very convincing about the scariness of supremacy, the presumed entitlement to treat other people as prey or playthings. Certain facts are not in doubt. Three people died at the Algiers Motel, and there are no candidates to be the killers apart from the cops. But when one of the facts that is in doubt – when and how Carl was killed – is settled unequivocally and accompanied by the cynical framing of a future self-defence argument, we have to wonder why the writer and director need to simplify so drastically. It is not a matter of exonerating the policemen; just of asking what we are supposed to do with a film that relishes their nastiness as if it was a form of perfection.