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Exploding across the stressed out summer of 2017 like a powder keg thrown into a room that’s already on fire, Kathryn Bigelow’s hectic but harrowing docudrama account of the 1967 Detroit riots is inevitably as concerned with the persistence of systemic racism as it is with its past. The years between now and then have made it impossible to isolate the two — names like Tamir Rice and Philando Castile have disallowed us from deluding ourselves into thinking what’s done is done. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Nevertheless, there’s something broadly instructive about a major director choosing this moment to make a movie about this episode in the fraught history of American race relations. With Ferguson still so close in the rearview mirror, with Eric Garner still so fresh in so many minds, not even the whitest of viewers (or filmmakers) can look at Detroit and pretend that we ever really left. “Detroit” is extremely powerful when its wandering eye is trained on the moment at hand, when it’s performing a bracingly direct meditation on white violence and black fear. The film only runs into trouble when it clumsily attempts to contextualize the events of its horrific second act, as Bigelow and her “Zero Dark Thirty” screenwriter Mark Boal struggle to frame a tragic incident that was shaped by centuries of context.
The facts of the matter are easy enough to understand, although the crudely animated prologue in which Bigelow presents them might suggest otherwise. When America’s black population began spreading north during the Great Migration, many of its working-age men settled in Detroit (where the auto industry offered relatively robust job opportunities for people of color). The Motor City swelled with people, and the housing crisis that ensued was enflamed by racial discrimination — white mobs would enforce segregation by harassing black homebuyers out of their neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, white politicians and police chiefs regarded Detroit as a model for race relations in America, leaning on flimsy employment statistics that didn’t account for the low wages and high dangers of the jobs for which black workers were being hired. Schools were failing black kids (quelle surprise). In 1967, 93% of the city’s cops were still white even though 30% of the city’s people were black, and that imbalance often manifested itself in the form of baseless raids and physical brutality. It’s hard to imagine how the local white leaders turned a blind eye towards such vast inequality, and yet it’s also way too easy.
Bigelow’s film begins on the night of Sunday, July 23, 1967, as police sweep through an unlicensed drinking club in the 12th Street office of the United Community League for Civic Action. There’s a somewhat casual, routine vibe to the early stages of the encounter, and the coded immediacy of the handheld camerawork stresses the extent to which these people don’t yet recognize how they’re standing in the middle of a landmark moment. For our part, we don’t know where they’re standing at all. Bigelow’s you-are-there aesthetic privileges presentness above all else, including basic spatial coherence. Her decision to hire cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and double down on the visceral shakiness he brought to “Jason Bourne” impacts every part of the movie, and it soon becomes easier to locate the film’s characters in history than it is to figure out where they are in a hotel room.
Arrests are made, a bottle is thrown, and the rioting starts. Within 48 hours, the city looks more like a war zone than it does a major American metropolis. Federal troops are called in for the third time in Detroit history, and local patrolmen cruise the streets with shotguns at the ready. One of them, a “Leave it to Beaver”-looking kid named Krauss (a bravely committed and thoroughly punchable Will Poulter), tells his fellow officers that they need to empathize with the local black community. Seconds later, he shoots an unarmed looter in the back. Internal affairs recommends Krauss for homicide charges before sending him back out into the fray, armed to the teeth and with nothing to lose. What could go wrong?
A lightly fictionalized version of 24-year-old patrolman David Senak, Krauss is the living embodiment of everything that sparked the riots and a major reason for why the tensions turned deadly. His actions on the night of July 26 — and the wounded malice with which Poulter so powerfully reenacts them — serve as a grim testament to a James Baldwin line that seems lodged in the soul of Boal’s script: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
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