In the middle of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit (2017) is a horror film. Like the torture-games from the Saw franchise, this slice of terror takes place in a single, claustrophobic location: the Algiers Motel. Unlike Saw, what we see is, more or less, historically true. Two black musicians, two suburban white women, and their two black friends are brutalised by a gang of sadistic police officers throughout one night – 25 July 1967 – during the Detroit riots. The women are sexually harassed. One of the cops misunderstands a mock-execution tactic and kills someone for real. This begets more violence.
Our fear during this long, arduous section is structured by the architecture of the motel and the conventions of the home invasion thriller. There are exits through which a few lucky characters escape. There are walls that muffle screams. Our reactions – ‘Grab his gun! Jump out the window! Hide on the floor! Play dead!’ – ape our responses to standard genre fare. Bigelow performs the opposite trick to Get Out (2017), where the politics of race elevate the horror genre and vice versa: in Detroit, the horror elements distance us from the bigger questions raised by the Algiers atrocity – about the systems that enable racialised violence. Bigelow’s approach also absolves her of any duty towards historical specificity. In the late 1960s Detroit was alive with radical trade unionism, a nascent black liberation movement and, of course, mass-insurrection against the state. But when we are inside her Algiers Motel we could just as easily be inside the house from Night of the Living Dead (1968) or Panic Room (2002).
In a film with pretensions towards some socio-historical truth, this exploitative simplification is a fatal error. It makes the courtroom drama that comes next feel trivial. It makes the humanisation of the racist cop feel stupid. It makes the survivor’s redemptive foray into church choir music feel facile. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers praised Bigelow’s technique for ‘[smacking] us down in the middle of a brutal historical event so we can see it – and feel it – for ourselves’. This tells us who Travers and Bigelow quietly assume Detroit is for: those who don’t already ‘feel’ racism on a daily basis. It is as if the film is designed to have a measurable, salutary, pedagogical effect on white liberals. But racism is not a horror show for worthy spectators. And cinema should offer more than a ticket to a haunted house.