Here’s what Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal say they wanted to accomplish in shooting Detroit: That filmgoers “not so much watch the story as absorb it like a physical sensation.” The question: Should a race riot be inflicted on an audience as a “physical sensation?” In making an agitprop movie, should filmmakers design scenes that might themselves be potentially inflammatory?

I am not skittish about film violence nor am I a virgin with riots. As a newspaper reporter, I covered the Watts riots in Los Angeles and its follow-up in San Francisco; I have ducked bullets and gone face-to-face with protesters. Given all this, I wonder whether filmmakers as skilled as Bigelow and Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) should position themselves to be contributing to the chain reaction of violence they purport to dramatize?

Some critics are lauding Detroit and calling its mayhem “cathartic.” The movie spans the five-day period in 1967 from the start of the rioting (cops closing an unlicensed club), through scenes of relentless and sadistic police brutality, and ending in clumsy trials. The actors play either predators or victims — there are no protagonists. The rioting resulted in 43 deaths and 7,000 arrests. Though Boal’s research is based on the testimony of Cleveland Larry Reed, a singer in the Motown band calling itself The Dramatics, Reed gets lost amid a sea of tormented souls. “I wanted this movie to be authentic,” Boal says. ”I wanted to unpack the story so that the audience understands what it means to be caught in the cross-hairs of that moment,” says Bigelow.

To be sure, “that moment” has since been replicated in Ferguson, Baltimore, Baton Rouge and many other locations over the past five decades, with similar triggers and repercussions. Fifty years later, Detroit is 80% black, with 40% of its population living below the federal poverty line. In 2013, Detroit’s $18 billion debt resulted in the biggest municipal bankruptcy on record. While a case can be made that much of the city is now caught up in an economic recovery led by Mayor
Mike Duggan, it’s unclear the degree to which all are sharing in this economic growth. The New York Times reminds us that one in four properties in Detroit have been foreclosed in the past five years, mainly because upwardly striving families cannot afford to pay the city’s high property taxes.

While Detroit has long been a symbol of racial unrest, Bigelow and Boal could have picked other racial cataclysms of that period to focus on. Arguably the Watts riots two years earlier carried greater shock value. Sprawling over South Central Los Angeles, Watts seemed like a calm, if dirt poor, suburban neighborhood before a routine traffic arrest detonated the crisis. I had never heard of Watts before I arrived on the scene amid a fusillade of gunfire. My first note was that there were only three or four reporters, none of them black, and no black cops. I soon learned other secrets of Watts: Residents hated the police (the chief was a blatant racist), social services were completely absent (so were grocery stores), and unemployment was rife. By Day 3 the toll of the riots totaled 34 deaths and 3,400 arrests and Los Angeles’ sun-and-surfing culture was in a
state of shock. A week later events were replicated in San Francisco even as the summer of love was starting to bloom.

Annapurna Pictures

The race riots in a Bigelow-Boal movie are scenes of rampant sadism and chaos. The cops are crazy, beating up everyone in sight, and the troops summoned to support them are trigger-happy. None of this is consistent with the riots I’ve lived through; most officers in those instances seemed confused and panicked; I recall one cop in L.A. offering me his gun and advising, ‘I’m not gonna shoot any of these people.’ Most of the protesters, too, regarded the scene as hopelessly surreal. They wanted to leave, not loot.

Boal is fascinated by the fact that Detroit’s rioting in 1967 coincided with San Francisco’s summer of love. He insists that “the love potion stuff had already all but run its course” while the cultural crisis symbolized by Detroit still confronts us today. I’d resist this easy dismissal; the “love potion stuff” altered the way an entire generation lived its life. Someday, it, too, may be replicated in one form or another. Meanwhile Bigelow and Boal hope their ferocious depiction of Detroit will move filmgoers not only to see their film but also to understand its anger.

In a sense Detroit is thus the ultimate “indie movie” — the first film distributed by Annapurna, opening against the heavily promoted summer tentpoles. Megan Ellison, boss of
Annapurna, has had good luck as a producer of Zero Dark Thirty, Spike Jonze’s Her and David O. Russell’s American Hustle. But this film’s success will depend to a degree on award recognition. Some 20% of the Academy’s membership has been newly installed within the last four years, so judgment of Detroit will be an indicator of the tastes and social proclivities of its new range of choices. Will agitprop triumph?