Certainly, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal had the finest intentions in making Detroit, which is too bad for them. Because the one specific thing that Detroit most badly wants to do is the one thing that Detroit most particularly fails to achieve - indeed, it achieves something close to the exact opposite.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Detroit riots of July 1967, when a mass arrest of African-American partygoers triggered a massive violent protest, through which the city briefly turned into a war zone between its citizens, its police force, and the national guard. Any resemblances between this and the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri are, undoubtedly, quite intentional, and I have little doubt that the filmmakers intended for this to be a history lesson written in blood, reminding us that the ugliness of recent years has been only a particularly visible flaring-out of an American constant: brown-skinned males have been a favored target of lawmen since the first foundations of the country were laid.

And, too, I think that the white director, white writer, and all of the other producers (the film credits five, including Bigelow and Boal, all of them - you guessed it! - white) had the very earnest hope that their depiction of the casual and systematic violence meted out on African-Americans by white police would be upsetting enough to do... to do something, for sure, though I'm not entirely certain that they got as far as figuring out what that something was. I am extremely dubious of the claim that only people of certain demographic backgrounds have the "right" to tell certain stories, but Detroit is quite a daunting counter-argument. At the very least, the filmmakers needed to have a much clearer sense of why they were telling this story, and why they were telling it this way, and what they wanted the audience to experience, and how that experience would be different for different audiences, and what the impact of each scene could be and should be, and how important it was to consider both the specificity of the moment versus the historical context of that moment. Because, based on the finished product, it doesn't feel like they were considering those things at all, as they approached this most delicate of topics in 2010s America with the sensitivity of people out hunting with elephant guns. I don't see how a black filmmaker could have approached the material in such a scattershot way - frankly I don't see how a white filmmaker could have either, assuming that white filmmaker had sufficient awareness of the history of race in America to have picked this as a topic in the first place. But here we have the evidence of the film, right up in my face, proving me wrong.

That this will be a rocky exercise is clear pretty much from the start: the film opens with a quasi-animated history of race relations in the first half of the 20th Century, as text appears over brightly-colored murals. It's a potted history that provides only the threadiest context for what is to follow, tone-deaf and intellectually vapid, but even here I held out hope: for did not Zero Dark Thirty also begin with a cringe-inducing prologue that suggested the most historically illiterate, pandering possible interpretation of events was to follow? And that film turned out quite well.

Sadly, Detroit ends up being mostly the film that one anticipates based on that opening. It doesn't have much of a head for historical context, either in its narrative nor in the images it presents; it seems to assume that showing us images of black men being tormented by white cops in a fashion that makes us feel unpleasant is all it needs to do in order to stake out its place as a politically consequential work of art. What results is a thoroughly de-historicised portrayal of events, in which police brutality is rendered as the stuff of generic thriller filmmaking. Bigelow is a good enough filmmaker that it's a properly effective thriller, I'm not going to dispute that; in fact, this somehow makes it worse. Because it does feel tense and distressing, but in the way that a really great slasher movie can be tense and distressing. It's robbing the images of their power, in the apparent ignorance that they had any power to begin with. And this brings us back to the question, could a white filmmaker ever have a great film of this material? At the very least, an African-American filmmaker would have been, I think, very unlikely to have treated it so generically and disrespectfully.

This is all compounded by how sloppy the film is - Boal hasn't ever been my favorite screenwriter, but both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty work on a structural level, and Detroit can't even do that. It starts by heavily compressing the first two days of the riots into an free-floating collage of moments, untethered by character or causality, which might have possibly yielded something of merit; it's similar to what Dunkirk is doing, though Dunkirk does it better (what are the odds that two wide-release movies in the same summer would both dabble in character-free "you are there" storytelling). It's plagued by a lack of context; the opening cards notwithstanding, there's simply no sense at all that this is happening because of decades of repressive violence and the threat of violence. The riots seem to be a thing that are just there, annoying the cops and scaring shopkeepers.

After a while, the film starts to coalesce around the characters who end up at the Algiers Motel, and here's where that opening act really fails to pay off. Because other than the aspiring singer Larry (Algee Smith) and the trigger-happy cop Krauss (Will Poulter), none of these characters have any real distinguishing personalities; they're just the people who ended up here that one time. Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard who ends up helping the cops, almost rises up to their level, but more because we've all seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and have the vague sense that Boyega is being positioned as the "lead", rather than because the film does anything interesting with him. Indeed, the filmmakers' failure to do anything interesting with him is one of Detroit's biggest problems; the script apparently supposes that Dismukes would feel in some fashion like a traitor to his race, but it doesn't quite know why, and certainly doesn't know how to dramatise that. Other than those three, the best case scenario is the "Hey, that's Anthony Mackie!" response, in which the characters all emerge from the background because you know the actors from something else (for myself, I also had "Hey, that's...!" reactions to Jason Mitchell, Jacob Latimore, Jack Reynor, and Malcolm David Kelly, and only in Latimore's case it end up mattering).

It's a film without a psychological center, apparently by design, which means that it can only ultimately be about the surface level experience of that really happened on one horrible night in 1967: three Detroit PD officers terrorised a motel full of black men and two white women, three black men ended up dead. It's horrifying to watch, of course, but it's all very superficial in its horror, and far more because Krauss is a sweat-soaked crazy person than because there's a long, tormented history of cops terrorising black men (for a film that is explicitly about structural racism, Detroit only understands how to depict individual, personalised racism). Bigelow's documentary style worked in her last two films because they were both anchored by specific characters undergoing very specific arcs; Detroit has types instead of characters, and whatever arcs they undergo are for the most part buried.

And then, eventually it turns into a third movie altogether and whatever lingering effectiveness this all had goes right to hell, but really it was too late for Detroit long before it turned into a courtroom drama (which is, among other things, not a genre that Bigelow and Boal's "you are there" journalistic technique works for). It's simply misconceived: there might have been a way to make a thriller about police brutality that could be mind-expanding and viscerally exciting and deeply horrifying, but it needed filmmakers more sensitive to what they were dealing with, and defter at telescoping from broad social trends down to individual narratives (whereas Detroit is hapless at both of those scales). The whole thing seems to drill down to the white-hot message "it is bad when police mistreat African-American men and get away with it", to be received with a shake of the head and a cluck of the tongue by audiences who would not have wandered into this film without already fully agreeing. It's the scourge of bland white middle-class cinematic liberalism striking once again, asking us to feel Very Bad About Society without any insight or understanding, and without any further goal than allowing the white middle-class liberal to get off on feeling guilty.

50 years ago, while the Detroit riots were happening, there was a film for just exactly that same audience in post-production, called Guess Who's Coming for Dinner. We get to have more violent movies now, so Detroit is more viscerally involving than that was, but in all other respects it's the exact same thing, made for the exact same scrawny reasons, and with the exact same drearily milequetoast results. Then as now, it is trivialising in its attempt to engage with racial identity or the history of racism, and given that it has no other goal than to bring those two things to our attention, I can't think to regard it as anything but a total failure.