Detroit, 29th August 2017
I sheepishly admit that, up to now, I had not see a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow in its entirety. I have tried to get going on The Hurt Locker a couple of times but seemed to recall interruptions and general life business got in the way. I mean to correct this omission on the assumption that her previous work is as powerful as Detroit.
For gut-wrenchingly powerful this is. Ms Bigelow and previous collaborator-writer, Mark Boal, have taken the real life events at the Algiers Motel in July 1967, set against the backdrop of the Detroit race riots, and created a genuinely gripping polemic against racial injustice. Hate, fear and violence are realistically portrayed by a uniformly excellent cast. From the direct historical prologue, through the police raid on the “blind pig” celebration party, which was the catalyst for the 12th Street Riot, and finally the closing scene where one of the survivors, Larry Reed, seeks some closure by returning to a career in singing, I was transfixed. The hand held cinematography of Barry Ackroyd takes you right inside the Algiers Motel during the crucial hours, but the cameras work just as effectively in the “vintage” riot scenes, the courtroom scenes and the scenes in the police station. It seems to me that every shot has been thought through to craft a “realistic” experience. The soundtrack adds to the intensity and the story of soul group, the Dramatics, whose lives changed dramatically that night, adds an agonising poignancy to complement the anger.
If I had to single out one performance it would be Will Poulter as Philip Krauss, the leader of the Detroit Police Force patrol which raids the Motel. He is up against pretty stiff thespian competition in the form of John Boyega as Melvin Dismukes, the conflicted security guard who gets caught up in the incident, and Algee Smith, as the aforementioned Larry Reed. Poulter captures the matter-of-factness of Krauss’s racism perfectly, but also shows the way he seems to be both addicted and fearful of his own paranoid recklessness. You will hate him but you will recognise him.
I confess I knew nothing of these events and only had a vague knowledge of the Detroit riots. I certainly had no idea as to the scale of the response by the authorities to these riots – National Guard, army, tanks, artillery, snipers – the spectre of Vietnam hangs heavy. I gather Ms Bigelow and Mr Boal have made some fairly significant changes to explain the gaps in the “known” facts of the case, and have collapsed down the investigation and subsequent trials. In a telling construction the black characters in the film largely reflect the real life protagonists but the names of the white characters have been altered. This has served to heighten the drama and the argument. It seems from the extensive Wikipedia entry that the injustices meted out to the victims here were carried through into the subsequent trails of the police perpetrators, and that the events had a profound impact on the nature of race relations in the US.
And yet you will be left with a profound feeling that very little has changed. I am no expert on the nature of racism in the US, and my view is informed by my politics and reading (so damn me as a hand-wringing liberal), but, it seems to me, that by dramatising these events of 50 years ago, the makers of this film have served to underscore what is still so wrong now.
I can see that some might recoil at the graphic way in which events are portrayed or might reject the way in which white police brutality is so absolutely contrasted with black helplessness. But I was left reeling and seething from a very fine piece of film-making. There is enough utter escapist shite on the screens of cinemas everywhere, or indeed, serious films that run scared of taking a view. So those like Ms Bigelow, who get the budget and the cast to make such howls of indignation, should be rewarded by us the audience with our attention in my humble opinion.