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Is Detroit’s Violence Gratuitous?

Kathryn Bigelow’s new historical drama shows a director obsessed with the moment of death.

Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ came out in 2004, there was much talk of the blood. The violence done to the hero’s body by his torturers seemed gratuitous. It was as if the camera wanted to lick his wounds. But as Roger Ebert observed in his review of that movie, Gibson’s film provided “a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of.” Violence is at the core of the Passion story, and so it is at the core of the movie adaptation: For many Christians, the physical torment undergone by Christ has a very important spiritual dimension. Then again, David Edelstein called it a snuff movie.

For similar reasons, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit has garnered multiple accusations of indulging in “torture porn.” Detroit is set during the 12th Street riot of 1967, focusing on an episode that historians commonly call the Algiers Motel Incident. Responding to what they thought was the sound of sniper fire—it was in fact the report of a starter pistol—white police raided the motel’s annex building. Three young black men died by the night’s end, and nine other people were terrorized by racist cops. The victims Aubrey Pollard, Carl Cooper, and Fred Temple were all teenagers.

“Torture porn” is an odd phrase, since it implies that somebody is getting off on something. That’s not quite the case here; the violence in Detroit is gratuitous simply because there is so much of it and it is so profoundly repugnant. We see a group of mostly young black men beaten and in some cases murdered by a few deranged white cops who have them essentially caught in a deathtrap. We see teenage boys on screen, representing teenage boys who died in real life, begging for their lives and receiving bullets point-blank anyway. It made me puke and it made me dizzy.

Like The Passion of the Christ, Detroit’s violence is its constitutive feature and the aspect of the movie that leaves the longest-lasting impression upon its audience. Unlike the Passion of the Christ, however, it is not clear for whom Detroit’s violence is intended.

The movie is filmed in ways that strongly echo Bigelow’s war movies of recent years, while calling back to an entire career obsessed with the moment of human death. Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography in Detroit shakes, the way it shook The Hurt Locker. It’s not the flutter of found footage-style movie-making, but instead a handheld technique that stutters the way that an exhausted but tensed muscle shakes. It works in very strange counterpoint to the hands and limbs and eyelids that tremble throughout Detroit.

As the brutalized civilians are made to line up against the wall with their hands against it, their fingers quiver like birds. Blood smears. When the character Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is arrested and thrown in the pen his whole body seems to dance. During the ordeal itself, Dismukes, a local security guard, acts as a sort of protective observer, a calm and quiet presence. But once on the cops’ turf, and under threat of unjust charges, the twitching becomes uncontrollable.

In a third melodic line around motion and space, Detroit is mostly set in an extraordinarily confined area: one hallway in the motel’s annex, and the rooms that surround it. Shaking camera; quivering bodies; one hallway. The overall effect is to make a viewer feel nauseatingly trapped. It feels like being in a room with death itself.

Detroit is not Bigelow’s first movie about racist violence by white cops. That would be the science fiction flick Strange Days (1995), a huge box office failure. In that movie, characters record so-called SQUID files from their cerebral cortex: essentially mini-movies of their memories, played out as point-of-view shots in the film.

Two LAPD cops kill a politicized rapper named Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer). Only a SQUID disc recorded by a sex worker named Iris reveals the cover-up of his death. In an extraordinary allusion to the footage of Rodney King’s beating, we see a woman’s memory of Jeriko One’s death, firsthand. Then, as she flees the scene, we see her running for her life. She’s on her knees, she dodges a train, she hyperventilates.

Bigelow’s movies take us so close to death that we are almost inside it. This is what is so disturbing about her films. It’s not the camerawork—it’s looking at a person lose hope for his own survival. It feels like watching Peeping Tom (1960), the movie that shows a murderer skewering his victims with a blade attached to his camera. You get to stare into the victim’s eyes as she realizes that she’s going to die.

Having made two films in two very different registers about racist police violence, it is fair to applaud Bigelow for her commitment to engaging in political conversations through filmmaking. Her two other recent movies, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, were also intimate political works: One followed a bomb disposal expert in Iraq, while the other depicted the hunt for and killing of Osama Bin Laden.

But the problem of Detroit is that it uses phenomenal rather than systemic violence as its core. The whole life that cop led up to and after the motel night was facilitated and nurtured by white supremacy. And the opening sequence of Detroit is a gorgeous animation based on Jacob Lawrence’s paintings of the Great Migration, overlaid with text describing in broad strokes the realities of racism in the North. But the majority of this movie takes place inside a single building. We see a maniac torture his victims. It is much too easy to ascribe the white cop’s crimes to his personal psychopathology.

The persistent and sickening violence of Detroit could work as a powerful purgative, a corrective medicine for deprogramming those who doubt the reality of police brutality. But what if you are not such a person? You do not need to see the bullet to know that racist cops kill. You do not need to see a man die to know that death is frightening.