DIR: Kathryn Bigelow • WRI: Mark Boal • PRO: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Matthew Budman, Megan Ellison, Colin Wilson • DOP: Barry Ackroyd • ED: William Goldenberg, Harry Yoon • DES: Jeremy Hindle • MUS: James Newton Howard • CAST: John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith
Although every film critic should enter a screening with an open mind and an unformed opinion, Detroit’s marketing campaign has made the film a difficult exception. Despite having one of the most catching taglines in recent memory, “it’s time we knew” also errs in being one of the most ill-conceived. As a film recreating the lesser-known cruel tragedy of the Algiers Motel incident of 1967, its tagline makes perfect sense. But as a film dealing substantially with racial prejudice and police brutality, to suggest no one knows of its occurrence in America is at best absurd and at worst woefully ignorant. “It’s time we knew” suddenly possesses an air of privilege and white exceptionalism made more emphatic in the opening minutes of the film as it explains why racism exists in America.
However, it doesn’t take long for Kathryn Bigelow’s award-winning visceral and intense style to salvage the film almost entirely. Based on personal records and testimonies investigated by the filmmakers themselves, Detroit is an amalgam of three different kinds of film blended seamlessly together to create an epic account of the 12th Street riot as it lasted between July 23rd and 27th 1967. Firstly, there’s the suburban war film, as a public bust of an unlicensed club incenses the neighbourhood against unlawful arrests and abuse from local law enforcement. News and archive footage mesh impeccably with the handheld realistic style of Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography, who worked previously with Bigelow on The Hurt Locker.
While the first third of the film establishes the environment and mood, it’s the second involving the motel incident itself that takes up the bulk of Detroit’s 2 and half hours running time. Played out like a home-invasion movie, the sound of gunfire incites nearby patrolling police and military officers to enter a three-storey house at the rear of the Algiers motel for a suspected sniper. What follows is a brutal and humiliating line-up of nine black men (among them is Anthony Mackie, Jacob Latimore, and Algee Smith) and two white women, led by officers Krauss, Demens, and Flynn (played by Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, and Ben O’Toole respectively) and a private security marshal named Dismukes (played by John Boyega). As the lack of clear evidence becomes more apparent, the three white officers grow increasingly more violent and begin tormenting the suspects with threats of murder if no one comes forward as the imagined culprit.
Every minute is made excruciatingly tense, as each actor gives a far more raw and grounded performance, adding to the sense of realism that has made Bigelow a celebrated director in recent memory. John Boyega serves as the film’s moral centre, showcasing a charisma that made him a breakout star in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In contrast to this is Will Poulter, whose personal racism influences him to manoeuvre around the law and exhibit its inherent corruption.
Bigelow’s attempts at finding a grey moral centre soon dissipate as the line-up gets underway; despite her attempts to highlight the competency and impartiality of the police force during its opening section as a point of contrast, its central antagonists are so intense to witness, that it’s extremely doubtable if anyone would find an inch of sympathy for the three racist officers.
As the film gets to its third act, in an extended post-traumatic sequence and the subsequent trial on the Algiers motel incident, things begin to fizzle out once again. Although Detroit adheres as faithfully as possible to the facts, the framing of the trial can’t help but feel clichéd and redundant. While it offers interesting points of discussion, Mark Boal’s screenplay is extremely black and white on its subject matter. That is, a predominantly white police force profiles and impedes black Americans significantly more than they do with other white Americans. It’s a conclusion that is fairly obvious to anyone even before entering the film, and doesn’t warrant its substantial running time as a result.
However, make no mistake; Detroit is a very well-made and gripping film to watch. What problems the film does have thematically are more than compensated for by some of the most excruciatingly tense sequences in cinemas this year. While some might suggest this to be a step down from both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow still provides an incredible and shocking experience on one of the biggest issues in American society to this day.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Detroit is released 25th August 2017