This post is brought to you in collaboration with DETROIT — in theatres now.
There’s a begrudging importance to holding a mirror to America and reminding her of her sores. Mirrors are utilitarian in nature. They offer no solace to their subjects, nor any explanation of their reflections. They’re revealing, frustrating, transfixing things. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, Detroit is a two-hour and 23-minute moving mirror image of police brutality and the black experience.
Based on the true events of the Algiers Motel incident, wherein three black boys were murdered and seven others were beaten and held at gunpoint by the police during the 12th Street Riot, Detroit doesn’t attempt to spell out the causalities of state violence or civil unrest. Instead, it solely depicts the application of systems of oppression, peering over the flesh of the oppressed. It lays its sequence of events out as plainly Mike Brown’s innocent body in the middle of that road in Ferguson.
In a world where racially motivated and law enforced acts of violence are met with disingenuous dog whistles such as “why did he run?” or “why didn’t she comply?” — sentiments that were echoed by the film’s white antagonists — Bigelow and Boal’s sights seemed to be set on proving white supremacy’s indifference toward guilt or innocence.
The filmmakers don’t go out of their way to indict that indifference, because it indicts itself. Conversely, they don’t waste time on proving innocence, because the proof is in the eyes of the victims and the bones in their bodies, cracking under the weight injustice.
The performances do the heavy lifting in Detroit—not the preaching, nor the posturing, nor the pondering. There’s none of that. Mirrors don’t speak. The physicality of the reflected images did all the talking.
Five physical performances stuck out in particular, as they most aptly captured the barbarism black folks are met with in this country—two of which came as a pair.
Algee Smith as Larry Reed, and Jacob Latimore as Fred Temple
The battering of aspiring soul singer Larry Reed and his friend Fred Temple, the two most bright eyed and unassuming of the Algiers victims, most succinctly depicted the aforementioned indifference of white supremacy and police brutality.
They were the two most fearful, the two meekest, and quite obviously, the two most likely to confess their crimes should they have actually committed any. But still, they were beaten the most thoroughly, interrogated the most intensely, and terrorized the most creatively. At one point, the ringleader of the terrorizing police force instructs the victims to pray.
In a moment showcasing his brilliance as a performer, Smith, who is undoubtedly the film’s standout in every sense of the term, drops to his knees, capturing a petrified panic, and belts out a gospel hymn as the lead officer gleefully cackles at the fact that he’s actually praying.
Will Poulter as Philip Krauss
That lead officer was Philip Krauss—an abject, unrepentant, deplorable man who throughout the incident inflicted the most pain and felt the most pleasure. Poulter’s unwillingness to flinch in his role torturing the black boys unfortunate enough to be staying at the Algiers that night (as well as the two white girls who were with them) tortures the audience in kind.
For the film’s message to hit home—that persecution trades in violence—the persecutors need to have bodies as unbothered as those of the victims are violated. Lanky and swaggering, Poulter struts across the motel lobby, towering over his character’s subjects in a way that personifies the constant threat of state violence that looms over black Americans.
Anthony Mackie as Greene
Anthony Mackie’s stoic portrayal of Greene, a Vietnam War veteran accused by the officers of being a pimp, proved no matter how overly compliant a black man learns to be throughout his run ins with whiteness, no amount of compliance will ever erase the perception of his blackness.
As Greene, Mackie’s hands were raised above his head well before the police kicked his door down and rushed his motel room. The actor made sure not to make a single sudden move throughout his performance. True to that instinct, the scene wherein Mackie slowly tilts his body and instructs an officer to reach into his pocket and fish out his military ID, instead of grabbing it himself, speaks to the very real expectation for black folks to somehow know how to not get shot—as opposed to the more appropriate expectation for the police to know when and when not to shoot people.
John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes
The context of those expectations justifies Bigelow and Boal’s lack of interest in explaining their origins or suggesting ways to correct them. Detroit may take place in the summer of 1967, but its constructed reality is very much the one we live in today. Certain rehearsed behaviors are results of growing up constantly pulled by the gravity of such a world. Those behaviors were evident in John Boyega’s face throughout his performance.
Portraying a local security guard who winds up inspecting the motel alongside the police officers, there’s an ambiguity to whether Boyega’s character is a protagonist, an antagonist, or merely a not-so-innocent bystander. What the actor made clear as day, though, was how his character felt about what he was witnessing, and the limits of how he could help.
Of the leading men, Boyega was the least talkative while remaining the most emotive throughout the entire film. While Poulter gave page-long monologues, and Smith, Latimore, and Mackie screamed, prayed, and quivered, Boyega conveyed more than them all—simply by watching them.
There was a mix of emotions articulated through his face that at once spelled learned protector and helpless spectator. The look he maintained was as striking and familiar to black audiences as the violence that inspired it. We’ve all seen it before. It’s the same look that washes over our parents whenever they see black bodies on the news that resemble our own—worried yet collected, immeasurably angry yet restrained by routine. In that type of sidelined horror, Boyega somehow managed to capture the persistent grief felt by black audiences who identify with these types of injustices.
While this recounting should be important to both groups, it isn’t necessarily for either one to learn from. Opting out of offering a solution, the actors and filmmakers responsible for Detroit appear to be foremost interested in universally proving the mere existence of the problem to Americans who refuse to believe there is one in the first place.
Films like Detroit are necessary for reminding America at large those realities exist, as she would love nothing more than to pretend they don’t.
DETROIT is in theatres now.