Let’s start with the conclusion: when it comes to defending a film on the fact that it renders the real, it is a sign of a problem. And this problem runs through all of Detroit movie.
Detroit movie critic
Bigelow has acquired this prestigious status as a filmmaker whose each new project is in itself an event, both through his obvious, and not usurped, mastery of the staging and the choice of his subjects which deal with the painful contemporary history of United States. After Iraq in The Hurt Locker, terrorism in Zero Dark Thirty, gives way to the race riots of 1967.
It is difficult, in a context as specific as Trump’s America, where white supremacists seem to have the approval of the highest authorities, to dispute such a hot topic. Delicate, also, to be choosy on elements of the scenario or the characterization of the characters when we explain to what extent the most precise documentation work presided over the writing of the restitution of this news item that was the massacre of the Algiers hotel.
Bigelow is at the helm of a work that aims to be educational: its animated credits underline this, explaining in a few minutes, in the form of a social geography course, the ins and outs of racial segregation in the 1960s. The first sequence of the film alone sums up the style of the filmmaker, who has lost nothing of its splendor: crowd management, cutting with sustained and efficient precision, makes it possible to raise the tension and give see clearly the mechanics of the worst: the spark at the origin of the blaze.
This mixture of documentary (by the cameras on the shoulder and the liveliness of the sequences) and of the fiction film (by the alternating writing allowing to navigate from one character to another, from an interior to the street, cops with heated premises) is undeniably talented. It remains to be seen where it will take us over the two and a half hours of the full story.
And it is the writing that raises the question: after a laborious exhibition that attempts to give substance to the characters in a choral fashion, the convergence towards the bloody camera occupies the heart of Detroit movie.
The guarantee of verism passes, seems to assert the screenwriter Mark Boal, by completeness. Nothing will therefore be spared us from this terrible night: the comings and goings, the reversals, the tireless repetition of blows, humiliations, the expression of sadism, injustice and barbarism. Similar to McQueen in Twelve Years a Slave, Bigelow chooses the viewer’s pain. It is defensible, and it is moreover one of the subjects of the debate before one of the occupants of the hotel, for laughs, shoots through the window with his alarm pistol: to make known to the whites the fear.
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A question then arises: what is the difference between this film and a documentary that we could see on the subject, with witnesses facing the camera and archive photos?
The claim, precisely, to give life to individuals beyond the simple journalistic photo, or the portrait of incarceration at the post. And on this point, Bigelow fails.
Because his film is far too long, because his demonstration, however realistic it may be, spends its time discrediting itself under the push of coarse highlights. Every character is a function, and even the tokens of subtlety (namely, black collaborators and non-racist cops) ring false.
Moreover, this is the major problem with Detroit movie: aware of his visual mastery and the strength of his subject, he becomes pretentious about it, and believes he has foiled the traps by tricks that do not really deceive. The laborious process bears witness to this, as does the redemption through the liturgy of one of the protagonists: it seems essential to drive the point home of a demonstration that did not require so much.
Let’s go back to the initial sequence: everything had already been said, and in a much more effective way, because without the pangs of a caricatured psychology. The character played by John Boyega sums it up perfectly: witness and accomplice, kind and horrified, submissive and compassionate, condemnable and deplorable, he never really exists. This in-between was a real subject, but the result here is an irritating stillness, which perfectly symbolizes the awkward posture of this unstable film.
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