For most of its sprawling, thematically dense runtime, Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—our current Movie of the Month—is a politically daring, eerily prescient rebuke of the historically racist Los Angeles Police Department. As much as the film’s futuristic VR recording tech was predictive of the way police body cams & citizens’ cell phone footage would later change the way we publicly processed police brutality in the coming decades, it also served a snapshot of its then-current political angst. Strange Days plays like a big-budget blockbuster amplification of the racial police force pushback that led to the Rodney King riots, reinterpreting real-life civil unrest through a futuristic sci-fi lens. It’s a bizarre jolt of a letdown, then, when those citizens vs. police tensions are resolved in a last-minute turnaround where a police commissioner swoops in to admonish his corrupt, racist employees – simplifying the LAPD’s systemic racism to just a few rogue cops who don’t follow protocol. That same misinterpretation of racist policing in black neighborhoods would pop up again decades later, when Bigelow fixed her eye on a racist past instead of a racist future.
2017’s Detroit drew much more vocal criticism for its political shortsightedness than Strange Days suffered in the 90s, but that’s likely because more people happened to see it in the first place (not to mention the democratization of critical publication in a post-Twitter world). A brutal historical drama about the 1967 Detroit race riots, the film wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleasing box office smash, but Bigelow’s transformation from underappreciated genre film auteur to Oscar-winning establishment director means that every feature she releases in the modern era is something of an event. Like Strange Days, Detroit rushes out the gate throwing wild punches in a frenetic, meticulously detailed account of how one police raid of an unlicensed black nightclub spiraled out into a weeks-long, city-wide riot. The first hour of the film is an adrenaline-flooded nightmare as handheld war-style photography mixes with real-life news footage to paint the backdrop for the smaller, more confined story to follow in its second hour. It’s once the story slams the brakes to park at The Algiers Hotel in that second hour that the film draws a lot of its political backlash from critics – an unease with depictions of police brutality that was only exacerbated by the film being released the same week as the police-condoned racist mayhem of Charlottesville.
Once Detroit shifts from its macro view of how the 1967 riots ignited & spread to the specific, intimate terror of The Algiers Hotel, its interests shift from political unrest to militaristic torture. Convinced that a sniper in the hotel is shooting at the National Guards, a small band of police officers torture the business’s residents to “confess” who is guilty of the (non-existent) crime. The duration & methodical repetition of this sequence, in which several black men are murdered & psychologically tormented by white cops, drew a lot of criticism as torture porn that turned black pain & brutalized black bodies into mass entertainment. That lingering fixation on physical abuse & torture had been part of Bigelow’s visual language since her earliest features, an approach to storytelling that could only be described as “unflinching.” Whether that sensibility was worth continuing when she shifted into telling real-life black stories as a white artist is a conversation worth having, especially since Charlottesville was such a raw nerve when the film was first released. What really disappointed me about Detroit personally, though, was Bigelow’s continued reluctance to interrogate the racism of the offending police force as an institution rather than a defect among a few bad apples. She showed very little progress on that front in the 22 years between Strange Days & Detroit, if any at all.
In its superior opening hour, Detroit is actively interested in the institutional reinforcement of racial segregation & subjugation, which only makes its third-act backpedaling all the more frustrating. In a bewildering mixed-media collage of animation, real-life newsreel footage, and blood pressure-raising historical reenactments, Bigelow paints a wide picture of the systemic racial inequality that led to the civil unrest at the film’s core: the history of urban housing inequality and the cycle of white flight; the media coverage of the riots as senseless self-destruction rather than a purposeful expression of political discontent; the police force’s unwillingness to shoot looters dead, as they value property over black lives; etc. When we zero in on the extensive torture session at The Algiers, however, that critical eye towards institutionalized inequality becomes much murkier, to the point of being meaningless. Every commanding officer, National Guardsmen, and varying other police force higher-ups who catch wind of what the “rogue” cops did at The Algiers (entirely under the direction of a single bully, played by the eternally punchable Will Pourter) is disgusted by their actions. Although the real-life cops who committed these heinous acts were never fully held accountable, the movie makes sure it’s clear that they acted as a standalone gang of rotten apples. It makes no moves to interrogate how their evil acts may have been encouraged or even deliberately trained into them by their higher-ups. They’re portrayed as human flaws in the system, instead of the ugly truth that they’re a sign of the system working exactly as intended.
For me, Detroit is overall a mixed bag, but the in-the-moment effect of its intense opening hour is almost enough to carry it. There’s some truly impressive, ambitious craft on display from Bigelow before the film slams its brakes to dwell on militaristic torture tactics for a literal eternity. Strange Days is similarly upsetting in is own depictions of intimate brutality, but its bigger sci-fi ideas remain a work of sprawling ambition throughout, making for a wholly satisfying picture in its entirety. No matter how much my genre-nerd impulses allow me to overlook Strange Days’s political shortcomings, however, I can’t help but be disappointed to see Bigelow’s “a few bad apples” misinterpretation of systemic police brutality & racism continue all the way into the 2010s. It only makes the superior firm’s own backpedaling conclusion more of a letdown in retrospect.