In this social and political climate, it almost feels like we’re going backwards more than forward. It’s when art decides to remind us of those nightmarish problems do we finally realign our psyche, hopefully for the better. Kathryn Bigelow, director of the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker, as well as Point Break, and Zero Dark Thirty comes her most recent feature about the Detroit Riots during the late 60’s, but specifically about the horrific night at the Algiers Motel in 1967. Her documentary style film-making makes it return with a fusion of some of the most chest compressing tension you’ll see all year, but even with that encapsulated in such a visceral way, Bigelow just misses the mark to making a great film.
Returning to help her pen the script is her Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal, a man who clearly does his research, but in return crams what he learns into his script like the people who make your burritos at Chipotle. While the information and detail is interesting, it isn’t incorporated in a fashion that brings uniformity or coherency to the story line overall which ultimately drags the film down like an anchor of overloaded detail. When the story is honed in on the events of the riots themselves, fusing real footage as well as closely seemed reenactments, there is a lot to be fascinated by, but that’s better suited for a documentary, not a feature film such as this.
The issue for me and my two buddies I saw this with wasn’t anything involving technical film making, quite the contrary, it was more so the lack of interest or information on the characters we were supposed to be sympathizing with. Instead of giving us a focused perspective on two of the main characters such as Larry (Algee Smith) and Fred (Jacob Lattimore), we are given John Boyega’s character of Demukes, a hired security guard that protects one of the local grocery stores, who seems to float and hover around the action like a ghost in a horror movie. Silent and unfulfilling. On the other hand, this plays out like a horror film once the main conflict decides to show its ugly head and to the credit of all the actors involved, there is a real sense of terror, frustration, and desperation that just eats at you like termites to wood.
When the main events of the film take place, you can see where the movie should have locked on. There was a clear target to make your subject, but what happens afterwards is this dragged out ending that doesn’t leave you satisfied in any way, especially if you’re black. For me, it was that same feeling of watching something like 12 Years A Slave, but what Steve McQueen was able to do, while creating something you can only watch once, was direct a film that knew the points it wanted to make. Sure, Bigelow highlighted the fact that police brutality is still very much a thing and she even said in an interview that it was the Ferguson shooting that inspired her to make the film, but what film makers should hopefully figure out is what story to tell. By the end, you’re just stewing in the agony and frustration of the past events to only get another spit in the face before the film concludes which really drags down the film overall.
In the end, there is so much Bigelow got right, but this may have been a situation of over researching a topic and not pin pointing exactly what needed to be written in your screenplay. I imagine what the same direction would have been like if the script was just written without such a muddled tone and all the extra subject matter. I honestly think the Detroit Riots are worth making documentaries and movies about and there is plenty to narrate from just one incident at a time. All and all, I was clearly emotionally charged, most of you will be, and that’s something you won’t be able to avoid, but there isn’t a payoff to such a harsh story which could require a few viewings of Django: Unchained to replenish that lack of satisfaction.