Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow has made two of the better films of the past decade. Both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty were commercial and critical successes. Both dealt with complex topics—modern war and terrorism—and both handled their complicated subject matters in nuanced ways.
Unfortunately, Bigelow’s latest effort, DETROIT, falls short of the high standard she has set for herself.
The film touches upon the general riots that took place in Detroit fifty years ago this summer, but focuses largely on a single event in the midst of that chaos as the crux of the narrative. On the evening of July 25th, 1967, law enforcement officials stormed the back “Annex” building of the Algiers Motel in the Virginia Park district of Detroit after hearing what they believed to be sniper shots fired from an upstairs window. The occupants of the Annex—a group of mostly young black men, as well as two eighteen-year-old white women—were rounded up in the living room and subjected to various forms of physical and psychological abuse. By the end of the night, three black men who had been in the Annex were dead. And the three white officers who were later charged in those deaths were all acquitted.
This tragic incident serves as Bigelow’s commentary on the Detroit Riots of 1967, as well as the racial tensions we still face today. She has taken a specific, deplorable situation that anyone with a conscience condemned and tries to extrapolate from it to “draw distressing parallels to the present,” as RottenTomatoes.com summarized the movie.
The acting performances in DETROIT are superb, and the direction and cinematography top-notch. But unlike Zero Dark Thirty—a masterful, if controversial, film that candidly explored both what worked and what didn’t in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden—DETROIT moves rapidly from cherry-picked historical overview to an exercise in “We’re going to prove to you how racist all white cops are.”
The movie offers no compelling examination of the underlying socio-economic and cultural factors that landed the city of Detroit in the mess it found itself in that summer of 1967. A definitive, and, some might argue, narrow, understanding of what led to the riots is offered and nothing else is allowed to penetrate the Bigelow’s agenda. Even the African-American characters all feel like they are put into cinematic motion purely to serve as fodder for a lesson in how horrible white people can be.
It is yet another iteration of the Abu Ghraib scandal that the Left loves to remind moviegoers and television viewers of any chance they get. Sure, there are some good soldiers and cops out there, these narratives suggest, and we mean no disrespect to those who serve and protect—but we’re going to show you how terrible they really act when no one is looking.
The city of Detroit burned for five days in July of 1967. More than forty people died that week. There were over 1,000 people injured and 7,000 arrests. Some 2,000 buildings were destroyed at the cost of tens of millions of dollars. The United States government had to call in the 82nd Airborne to help keep the peace. Detroit and the state of Michigan would never be the same and, in many ways, are still recovering from what took place five decades ago.
Bigelow is entitled to take whatever artistic license she feels necessary to make a movie, of course. But if that horrific encounter at the Algiers Motel is going to serve as the flagship story of what really happened in Detroit in the summer of 1967—with no deeper examination of how the American city with the highest standard of living in 1960 could end up burning to the ground seven years later—then we’re all in trouble.
Image: Annapurna Pictures