Bigelow's Detroit, despite its flaws, is an arresting and important watch.
Oscar Winner Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film tackles the Detroit riots of 1967, specifically the events at the Algiers Motel, in which three black teenagers were beaten and killed by policemen. The images in Detroit were all too familiar; white police armed for war rounding up black men and women. The film takes place in three acts. First the cause and the beginning of the riots, then focusing on the events in Algiers Motel, concluding with the court proceedings that followed. The film, especially the second act, doesn’t follow the usual tone of social-justice-protest movies. What we get instead is a horror movie. Yet such a shift in tone felt wholly appropriate; for it to do otherwise would lessen the truly nightmarish nature of events. It goes without saying that it is not an easy watch.
Throughout the film newspaper clips, real footage and photos from the 1967 riots feature and at times it feels like we’re watching a documentary. One such instance is the film’s opening. Starting with a sequence seeking to educate the audience on the economic, political and social factors that have led to the boiling point we’re about to witness. While it is necessary to inform the audience in this area, it is not convincing. While the attempt is noble, the magnitude of the issue and its complexities could not be condensed to two minutes.
Bigelow’s use of the camera is immediately disorienting and scarcely gives you time to place yourself, making the action inescapable. The effect is dizzying and highly effective. The quick cutting and shakiness reminiscent of iPhone footage from Ferguson and the live stream of Diamond Reynolds who began filming after a cop shot her boyfriend, Philando Castile. Yet the story of Detroit is about the depravity and injustice that occurs when no cameras are watching.
The shift in and out of documentary style also leads to issues in perspective. There are many characters in this film and the perspective is split between them. We follow John Boyega’s submissive security guard, Will Poulter’s racist cop and two members of the singing group ‘The Dramatics’ until they all meet at the Algiers Motel. The main issue with the film is this sharing of perspective. Far too much time was spent with these racist cops and thus taking time away from the character development of the victims. The film likely would have been stronger had the story been told from the perspective of Algee Smith’s character Larry, the lead singer of ‘The Dramatics’; he has the most affecting journey and is Detroit‘s most well-rounded individual.
This is was also due to a strong performance from Smith, in fact Detroit is jam-packed with strong performances. Will Poulter gives a career defining performance as the terrifying trigger-happy cop Krauss, he easily sheds and complicates the image of the awkward kid from We’re the Millers. John Boyega gives a solid performance as Dismukes, despite the shortcomings in his character development, more the script’s fault than Boyega’s; more explanation is needed for his decision-making, yet instead of exploring this further we seemed to return again to the racist policemen.
In one sense Kathryn Bigelow is the perfect person to be in charge of such a picture. She succeeds in making a war film, a film in which we see horrific, violent and psychologically scarring events. Yet one cannot shake the feeling that if a black director and a black writer had been at the helm we would have watched a very different film.
Detroit opens with the statement “Change was inevitable”. It is unclear as to what the intention was in these choice of words. Detroit opens just over two weeks after the events in Charlottesville and the day after President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, a man who had been convicted for racially profiling Latinos and had previously referred to his own jail as a “concentration camp”. These two events sandwich the films release and painfully demonstrate how hollow those words are. Very little has changed. Yet despite these problems, Detroit is still a film that needs to be seen. Although it could have been handled better this is a story that still must be heard. We must not look the other way.
Detroit (2017), directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment One, certificate 15.