Calvin Law reviews Kathryn Bigelow’s brutal dramatisation of the Detroit Riot.
Few can capture the sheer intensity and brutality of any given life-or-death situation like Kathryn Bigelow; it’s almost a given that in a film she helms, from Point Break to Zero Dark Thirty and her Oscar-winning work on The Hurt Locker, there will be at least one sequence to pull you into a brutal, relentless point of no return. Bigelow’s latest, Detroit, is no exception. Depicting the escalating tensions in 1967 Detroit – culminating in the infamous 12th Street Riot – it’s an exhausting film, and one the scariest in recent memory. The violence, cruelty and inhumanity witnessed onscreen is never palatable, but is compelling to watch. Here, the unsparing sequence and centrepiece of the film’s narrative is the Algiers Motel incident, where three young black men were beaten and killed by the police and several other victims abused and humiliated by a riot task force composed of Detroit and Michigan authorities.
One might take issue with the choice to portray the Algiers Motel incident in such detail, given how much remains unknown about the events of that night. It’s not my place to determine how accurate or thoroughly researched the film is; screenwriter Mark Boal himself acknowledges that a certain poetic license was needed to fill in the disputed spaces in the narrative. What’s for certain is that however far the filmmakers applied a degree of creative liberty to the facts recorded in contemporary news media, court records and police files, it’s a film that adheres to the underlying truth of the story. Detroit evokes a terrible – and in many ways avoidable – situation made possible by the ugly racial tensions of the time, which in some fashion or form persist to this day.
Though the degree of accuracy in Boal’s screenplay can be debated all day, the thoroughness in its presentation of the history and contexts leading to the Detroit riots of 1967 – kicked off with a short, snappy and stylized animated sequence – is impressive. The script intentionally opts for an initially broader scope, giving snapshots of how the 12th Street riots started: the ignition of brimming tensions in segregated communities of black migrants and a predominantly white police force. It works well to establish the tone of the film, and the blend of Barry Ackroyd’s dynamic, in-your-face shaky cinematography with found footage and news reels gives it a particular authenticity. It is through the escalating crime and violence of the riots that we are introduced to the three principals in the narrative. The first is Police officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), chastised for using a gun on an unarmed looter and facing potential murder charges. R&B singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) has a music hall performance with his group put on hold by the riots. And Melvin Dismukes, played by John Boyega and whose real-life counterpart acted as a consultant on the film, is a young man balancing two jobs as a factory worker and security guard, and also trying to balance the divide between the civilians and police in his area while on duty.
These three, among many others, converge in the Algiers one fateful evening when gunshots emitted from a starter pistol at the motel alert the authorities and Dismukes to the scene. Misunderstandings and extreme police brutality ensue; it’s a sequence that either makes or breaks the movie, and the film builds up to it effectively. The suddenness with which it hits you in the face is amplified by the brief respites we get beforehand of young people enjoying a good time at the motel: Larry charming two white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Denver) with his singing, and his friendship with the awkward but kindhearted Fred (Jacob Latimore) are particularly impactful, as are the scenes with other young black men shooting the breeze, and Dismukes befriending white local patrolmen in his area.
From there, the tragedy unfolds – through misunderstandings and police brutality – and culminates in a sequence where Bigelow, the editing, and the cast combine to make the film really soar at its bleakest. The film captures the gamut of emotions from rage to sorrow to fear, without ever forcing any of these emotions upon you. It may seem cliched to say a film immerses one in the moment, but that’s what Detroit does. Through a variety of close-ups and disorientating zooms, some very atmospheric use of dim lighting to amplify the tension in the motel, and uniformly strong performances among the victims – Murray, Latimore, Anthony Mackie (a war veteran who finds himself in a different sort of war zone), and Jason Mitchell (an endearing troublemaker who makes some terrible choices) are particularly outstanding at showing how the night wears them down physically and emotionally – Bigelow continually unsettles without feeling exploitative.
One aspect of the film that could have easily felt exploitative in the wrong hands are the depictions of police brutality. Bigelow and Boal impressively manage to add some nuance, in showing that there were some authority figures with sympathy for the victims, doing their best to help them out of a bad situation. It helps ground the uglier side of the police force depicted here, manifested most prominently in Poulter’s magnificent performance as a man who can best be described as a scummy scumbag. Regardless of whether or not this characterization is accurate – the names of the police officers were changed to avoid further complications – it’s terrific work by a blossoming young actor. Poulter’s no stranger to villains or brats, but his work here as Krauss is a revelation as an individual with absolutely no conscience, seeing himself as a crusader in the war zone, ‘just doing my job’ and exacting justice through his own twisted philosophy. ‘I’m just gonna assume you’re all criminals, because let’s face it, you probably are’ cuts particularly deep. The other two cops, Irishmen Jack Reynor (playing a dim-witted yes man, yet no less of a nasty racist) and Ben O’Toole (playing a lowdown, deviant sort who delights in violence), are very effective too, but this really is Poulter’s show. His twisted belief system and the moments it crumbles down are particularly effective as he shows the terrible man to also be a deeply pathetic one underneath.
There are glimmers of hope in the film, represented best in Smith’s soulful performance both as a singer and actor. The use of his character’s musical abilities may be slightly on the nose at some points, but work extremely well overall as a symbol of his dreams shattering in this environment. Boyega’s Dismukes, though far less a central driving force to the narrative than trailers suggests, stands out in his very own way with a strong, subtle performance as a different sort of victim at the Algiers. Both unwitting victim and alleged accomplice, he becomes a tragic figure who contributes so much to the emotional crux of the final act where the inhumanity of the situation and the indignation of the audience continues onto the courtroom. This sequence may prove to be either too long or too short for some, and features a slightly distracting cameo from John Krasinski as a sleazy lawyer, but it works very well as a downbeat footnote to the proceedings, with just the faintest silver lining in it.
One might question the decided lack of subtext in the film once the Algiers motel sequence kicks into place, and there is the question some have raised about whether Bigelow and co. were the ‘right’ storytellers, or have the right perspective for this sort of the story. That’s a whole different ballpark to my review here. What is undeniable is that Detroit is incredible purely as a film: it packs the right amount of horror and emotional investment into a terrible situation and time, and never takes the easy route out in dealing with difficult matters.
Detroit is released in the UK on August 25th. Watch the trailer below.