There was a time when the boundaries between documentary and narrative film were clearly drawn and widely accepted by filmmakers and audiences alike. Today, filmmakers of all types routinely blur those lines as if their lives — or their careers — depend on it.
Since the 1990s, documentary filmmakers have incorporated dramatic reenactments (staged scenes featuring professional actors) into their work on a regular basis, seemingly unconcerned that the practice might fundamentally alter the documentary form. On the narrative side, films “based on true events” now arrive in a steady stream, often relying on that pedigree to somehow legitimize highly fictionalized stories. And narrative films often incorporate archival, documentary-style footage into works of pure fiction. “Whatever works” seems to be the guiding principal for filmmakers today, brushing aside ethical and philosophical quandaries and sending a clear signal that a new era in film has arrived.
In a category of their own as regards these trends are the films of director Kathryn Bigelow — at least her three most recent films, The Hurt Locker (winner of six Academy Awards including Best Picture), Zero Dark Thirty (five Academy Award nominations) and now Detroit. All three films were written by seasoned journalist Mark Boal using the traditional journalistic methods of original research and reporting. The resulting films display an unusually clear and direct relationship to real-life events and a “just the facts, ma’am” sensibility that sets them apart from other action thrillers.
All of which begs the question: Why bother making lengthy narrative films that recreate historical events and — for the most part — intentionally avoid interpreting those events?
The sense of purpose underlying Detroit is unmistakable. The film recreates the events of a single night in one location during the five-day 1967 Detroit Riot, a violent confrontation between police and the city’s African American community that left 43 people dead and 2000 buildings destroyed. Bigelow clearly seeks to draw parallels between police brutality as perpetrated 50 years ago and the cell-phone-documented deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police occurring frequently today.
No one would mistake Bigelow’s films for documentaries — they are too well made on too grand a scale to be anything but Hollywood movies. But after spending nearly 2-1/2 hours with Detroit and enduring its relentless spectacle of racism, brutality and murder, one may ask if there exists a more nuanced and ultimately effective way of contributing to the social-justice discussion.
Detroit focuses almost entirely on what is now known as the Algiers Motel incident, in which nine innocent people were held captive, badly beaten and more than one of them killed by police looking for what they thought was a rooftop sniper. The film delivers a harrowing, almost real-time depiction of the incident, followed by a far more perfunctory take on the ensuing criminal trial.
Bigelow reportedly kept the full screenplay secret from her mostly very youthful actors until the end of the shoot to help keep their responses spontaneous and real. Standouts among the talented cast include John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Algee Smith as Larry Reed, singer for real-life R&B vocal group The Dramatics, who was among those trapped at the Algiers.
In what will surely constitute a deal-breaker for some viewers, Bigelow’s camera remains in constant, jarring motion throughout the film, heightening the chaos and tension of the story but also calling undue attention to cinematic technique. For all the film’s shortcomings, there’s no denying Detroit’s raw visceral power — or its capacity for drawing attention to a dark chapter in U.S. history that continues to shape the world of today.
Detroit opens today, August 4, at the Broad, Canal Place, Elmwood, Clearview and West Bank theaters.