The 1967 Detroit rebellion erupted in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement as a result of police racism, poor housing and lack of decent jobs. Director Kathryn Bigelow says she was inspired to tell the story after the 2014 Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri.
The film is a hard-edged action-thriller, packed with expensive looking set pieces. It is another example of Hollywood’s continuing preoccupation with race and resistance.
The opening sequence, depicting the events that sparked the uprising, shows the violence and brutality of the police as they beat black people in the streets. It’s clear that this is not solely intended as an illumination of a dim and distant past but serves as a commentary on police actions today.
The extended riot sequence doesn’t feature any proper characters, focusing on action while in the background Martin Luther King and Malcolm X debate resistance and non-violence. King said that a riot is “the language of the unheard”. But for the first 30 minutes Detroit does little to give the unheard a voice. Instead there is a succession of anonymous black people looting shops and throwing rocks at firefighters.
This does little to dispel the racist stereotype of riots as chaotic and senseless, motivated by violence and selfishness.
The film is about events that happened during the riot rather than the riot itself. The main characters (apart from the police) are people who have been caught up in the riot. This excludes the voices of those who directly took part. It also has the effect of casting the protagonists as “innocents” who are one step removed from the neighbourhoods that are burning down around them.
The main story recreates a real event — when a group of young people, black and white, were trapped in a house by viciously racist cops. From here the film gets much better.
A deep sense of injustice gradually builds as the police heap violence upon violence, combining it with their racist and sexist prejudices. This section is very well put together, a claustrophobic descent into unimaginable violence as the situation becomes ever more desperate.
The portrayal of the cops’ racism is slightly clunking and sometimes falls flat. This is partly a result of the focus on action rather than characters, but the larger problem is that big-budget movies like this lack the political language to properly explore the dynamic of oppression. But the recent mainstream preoccupation with these issues is testament to the anti-racist movement in the US.
Detroit is deeply cynical about the ability of the system to deliver justice — but this is delivered almost as an afterthought. It’s as if the filmmakers don’t want to overplay this aspect: they know their audience is already aware of the injustice of the police and law courts and so don’t want to labour the point.
The film is at turns cumbersome and gripping. It is the contradictory result of mainstream Hollywood trying to relate to its increasingly politically sophisticated audience.