Detroit — the latest film from Academy Award-winning director, Kathryn Bigelow — opens with as much promise and technical brilliance as any feature made this year. Starting with a brief animation depicting the White Flight of the 20th century, Detroit opens on the early morning of July 23, 1967, with a speakeasy raided by police. An informant is roughed up, arrests are made, a crowd gathers. The cameras, seemingly omnipotent, cut back and forth from multiple perspectives, stitching together bits of action from all over; not to give an abstract picture, but to construct a complete one.
This is how a riot builds: through minute moments of action and reaction. A rock is thrown. Then another. And another. A store is looted. People yell curses and epithets. The police hightail it out of there and the mob takes over. Stores are looted, fires are set, destruction is the new normal. President Lyndon Baines Johnson is heard over archival footage, or maybe footage designed to look archival. Does it matter? Not really, a point is being made.
The riot rages on. Day One, Day Two, Day Three. The camera continues to jump around the city, inside police cars, outside neighborhood homes, a congressman tries to quell the crowd. No names are attributed to the faces we see, just the familiar ones glimpsed in archival footage. Working with screenwriter Mark Boal, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, and editors William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, Bigelow presents the riots as faceless and without a center. The mob is just that, a mob. And for the first 20 minutes or so, Detroit is one of the most powerful and profound pieces of narrative filmmaking this year.
And then, a story develops.
There is a security guard (John Boyega); an up-and-coming Motown act, The Dramatics (Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore); racists cops who wear their gun belts like cowboys (Will Poulter and Jack Reynor); two young white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever); and a couple of guys who were at the wrong place at the wrong time (Anthony Mackie and Jason Mitchell). They all end up at the Algiers Motel, and here is where Detroit settles into its groove.
It should be noted that what happens inside the frame of Detroit is all based on true events. Some embellishments have been made and holes have been filled in where information was obscured. And though what transpires on screen is more traumatic than dramatic, the unfortunate aspect of Detroit is the unconvincing shift in perspective that starts everywhere and narrows to here: this motel, this courtroom, these people, this event.
Of all the directors working, few are as capable and engaging as Bigelow. For Detroit’s first 20 minutes, Bigelow relies on her intelligence as a filmmaker and the technical capabilities of her collaborators. Then she relies on a story. That’s an understandable decision; this is a major motion picture with a wide release, after all, but an unfortunate one. Detroit could have been so much more.