Detroit’s calculated outrage doesn’t see big picture

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens Aug. 4
3 out of 5

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Detroit, director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow up to Zero Dark Thirty. The craftsmanship is top notch, as is the talent. But given the subject’s timely and volatile nature — the dysfunctional relationship between law enforcement and the African-American community, and the impunity cops seems to have — I feel like something is missing.

Set during the 1967 riots, Detroit initially seems to be an all-encompassing take on the racially charged upheaval, but soon zeroes in on the notorious Algiers Motel incident. That evening, a violent police task force abused and humiliated a group of partying black youths, ultimately killing some of them.

Bigelow recreates the event in real time (since there isn’t a single ironclad testimony, portions of the incident had to be dramatized). The result is unexpectedly cold. Even though tensions run high, the director does a poor job establishing the characters, particularly the fictionalized policemen.

It’s easy to  connect the dots from police brutality during the Civil Rights movement to today’s epidemic of killer cops, but Bigelow and frequent scriptwriter Mark Boal underplay the obvious similarities. A more interesting approach would have been investigating if the antagonism between the police and the black community is a systemic failure. The “few bad apples” theory Bigelow and Boal seem to endorse doesn’t cut it.

Sounds like I’m completely down on Detroit. Not so. Bigelow doubles-down on her cinema vérité inclinations — the skilled use of archival footage enhances the you-are-there vibe — and it’s a perfect fit for this story. The cast is across-the-board excellent:  Will Poulter  as the cop ringleader makes a cartoon villain three-dimensional, and John Boyega — the security guard trying to prevent a larger massacre — continues to show more and more range.

But something’s missing. A little more skin in the game and Detroit could have been great. ❧