DETROIT (2017, Kathryn Bigelow)
50 years ago, there were race riots in Detroit, Michigan. Cops used it as an opportunity to unleash their inner white supremacist and murder innocent people just because they’re black. It’s a good thing America has advanced so much since those more barbaric times two generations ago — now, we luckily don’t see any white cops killing black people, nor do we see riots and marches based on racial animosity. Whew! Progress!
Okay, so Bigelow isn’t exactly looking for sarcastic acknowledgement like that, but her point is clear and explosively told. The running time is daunting — nearly 150 minutes — but my favorite thing about this movie is how, editorially, the length of it accentuates the content. The middle hour is a punishing, drawn-out nightmare of bigotry and violence. What starts off and ends as a movie that rushes through moments and slides around in history, ticking off key moments and cascading forward, stops dead in its tracks for a solid hour, unleashing a horrifying incident with uncompromised detail and endless torture. Bigelow wants the audience to want it to end, and we do. But it doesn’t. At least not for a long time past what we expect to be comfortable. Make this film 110 minutes and it collapses. The bloat of the second act is key to its force.
Unfortunately, the third act gets very Mark Boal, which has been a problem with other Bigelow films, especially THE HURT LOCKER but somewhat with ZERO DARK THIRTY. It doesn’t know where to go after the bravura Algiers motel annex sequence, so it just gives us a perfunctory trial that doesn’t tell us anything we couldn’t predict for ourselves, and then leaves character threads dangling. We also never get a good reason why the hostages, especially the white girls, didn’t just finger the dead Carl as the shooter to placate Will Poulter’s menacing Officer Krauss. But screenwriting curiosities aside, the bludgeoning effect of Bigelow’s courageous camera and violent sound design does the job — it’s mean, but it works. And if it gets audiences to reconsider just how insidious it is when institutions normalize prejudice — how it’s not only the fact that individuals are hateful bigots, but also that the government policies and procedures in place enable that racism to flourish and influence behavior, not just thoughts — well then it’s a damn good PSA.