Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Running Time: 143 mins
Synopsis: It is the summer of 1967, racial tensions are at an all time high in the city of Detroit. After police break up an illicit speakeasy populated by black folk, the city erupts into large scale rioting. 2 days later, a group of young men and women hole up in the Algiers Motel party to distract themselves from the chaos. A stupid decision by one of them leads the might of the Detroit police force to their door. What follows is a night of brutality and aggression that will forever change those involved.
If somebody had told me that director Kathryn Bigelow once harboured aspirations of being an investigative journalist then I wouldn’t be surprised. Not just because of her routine collaborations with journalist turned screenwriter Mark Boal, whom she teams with again here after The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, but in her focuses as a filmmaker. Detailed, authentic and a big champion for truth over cinematic melodrama. She maintains laser focus on setting, character and theme whilst still managing to combine large scale action that never feels shoe-horned in for the sake of bombastics. This ability is none more prevalent than in her latest, the incendiary Detroit.
A powder-keg retelling of the events that went down in the sweaty American city in 1967, wherein a build up of stifling racial tensions led by economic challenges to both races exploded into rioting, violence and a city left in ruins. Within all this lies the story of the Algiers motel and the cripplingly horrific abuse a group of young black men (and two white girls) suffer at the hands of an aggressive police force. A story largely unknown and one exhaustively researched by Boal and his team, interviewing key players who have remained silent since the events. Stressing that journalistic integrity, a end credit disclaimer does state that some moments may have been embellished based on said testimonies. Before all this violence though Detroit brings its audience up to speed with a strikingly animated trip through the history of black America and specifically the reasoning behind the tensions in Detroit. Whilst helpful in providing expositional clarity it can’t help but feel a little simplistically told, the educational contextual aspects of it at odds with the immediacy of the proceeding 2hrs.
There is no time to think about such matters though as Bigelow immediately throws us into the triggering events that sets off the citywide rioting. A late night police raid on an underground speakeasy, that just so happens to be populated by coloured folk. Witnessing this the locals soon get volatile, challenging the need to arrest those who were doing nothing more than harmless partying with stones and violence. Right from the off the tension is almost suffocating, the camera at one with the environment, searching, observant and capturing all angles. It is documentary-like, helped immeasurably by Barry Ackroyd’s intrusive immediate cinematography. A regular collaborator of that journalist turned director Paul Greengrass, he brings the same sense of urgency and handheld realism that gave Jason Bourne, United 93 and Captain Phillips their power. The shaky, quick cutting nature of it will no doubt put off those who like their cinema whiplash free, but without it Detroit would lose much of its tense grip.
Bigelow and Ackroyd capture a city in chaos with unflinching detail. Tanks roaming the streets, needlessly shooting at innocents whom they believe to be snipers. Or the volatile senselessness of the police brutality many suffer from. It feels like actual newsreel footage, haunting and palpably believable. It takes a good 30 mins before we are introduced to the key players. Much is said about Bigelow’s ability for veracity and thrilling action but she is also very adept at economical characterisation. All the main characters here have strong dimensions without the need to spend lengthy time with them. From the musical aspirations of singer Larry, to the military stoicism of war hero Greene, to the two white girls in Detroit for work but who are really experiencing that early adult need to “find themselves.” The efficient script sketches all this out within the framework of the main events, whilst Bigelow’s eye for casting marries these characters to strong performers.
Thanks to some pretty stupid naive behaviour, the inhabitants of the Algiers motel find the might of the Detroit police force and the National Guard coming down on them. For the next hour or so we are subjected to an almost real time assault on our morals, our hearts and our ability to breathe. Bigelow never loosening her grip on the ever worsening situation within the motel, her camera never shies away, watching implicitly. The metaphoric and literal heat all are enduring is captured with imagery dripping in sweat. Believing there to be a weapon concealed within its walls which they believe was used to shoot at them (in a cruel bit of irony it was nothing more than a harmless starter pistol) the police proceed to beat, humiliate and eventually murder those inside. Will Poulter leads the violence as unpredictable racist Krauss, and he does a sterling job at showcasing the volatile tendencies of a man crippled by emasculating weakness, his puppy dog face at odds with his monstrous actions. By his side Jack Reynor and Ben O’Toole play fellow officers finding themselves making decisions that are abhorrent, confusing and borne out of indoctrinated fear. Both are brilliant.
Their victims are played by a mixture of seasoned and newbie performers. Anthony Mackie mining quiet reserve as former soldier Greene, familiar with the brutality to come and attempting to maintain calm in the face of true horror. Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever give spirited early performances before the humiliation of the Algiers experience brings out a fierce strength and anger at what is happening. The two given the most focus though is singer Larry, played with determined grace by Algee Smith, at first strong but losing his reserve as the night plays out. The other is Star Wars alum John Boyega as security guard Dismukes, becoming an unexpected part of the situation and looked on with suspicion by the Algiers inhabitants for his supposed collusion with their oppressors. The answer is a lot more complicated though. Dismukes is the straight laced everyman, witnessing horrors to his kin but shrewd enough to understand that he cannot fight back against such overwhelming institutional racism. All he wants is for people to survive, realising that that is the only way they can win. They may suffer, be humiliated, be hurt but they will remain alive. He may in fact be the most heroic of them all, and Boyega mines deep soul behind the eyes of such seeming cowardice.
After such unflinching sustained terror the final act becomes an almost extended exhale, with the film suffering from a sense of drag. Not due to any fault with its execution, more due to the fact that the preceding events are so butt-clenchingly intense that you just want to escape the confines of the darkened cinema and breathe some fresh air. It masks what is a tragic rage-inducing finale. Bigelow easing off the in the moment immediacy in favour of larger contextualisation. As we witness not only how widespread racial injustice was in that time (and of course still is) but how the events of that night affected those survivors. Wisely she just focuses on how it affects one of them, Larry. Algee Smith conveying the debilitating white suspicions he now carries with him as hopelessly tragic, ruining his career and his relationships alike. It would not surprise anyone that the officers in question never suffered criminal charges, and Bigelow mines as much societal rage out of this as you would expect. But it is in Larry where her true sympathies and focus lie, the films final moments choosing to avoid some sort of political statement, opting for one mans face. A face that has witnessed such inhuman suffering, such loss, that even when he manages to find some semblance of normality, he can never be truly rid of those terrors. Bigelow finds the personable amidst the historical, the human amidst the injustice, the truth amidst the story. That is true journalism.
Verdict: Uncompromising, viscerally authentic cinema. Detroit has a tense stranglehold on a true story that demands to be known. It’ll leave you gasping for air and gasping for justice. A marvellous film.