“Being black is like having a gun held to your face”.
This is what we are told a third of the way into director Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, Detroit, and the film more than lives up to this quote. Whereas there are no shortage of films that deal with American racism throughout the ages, Detroit tells a horrific story about discrimination on an intimate level that pierces through your conscience. After an opening act that shows the effects the Detroit riots have had on the city at large, the film secludes itself to one city motel, a story infamous as “The Algiers Motel Incident” – presenting you with the horrors of institutional racism at point blank range to such an extent that you feel like you too have had a gun held to your face for 140 minutes.
Bigelow’s film has already achieved a rare and impressive feat: depict an important piece of American history in a manner that has unintentionally pissed off viewers of left and right political persuasions. But I’m only going to address the left leaning complaints here, as many commentators have expressed concern that a piece of African American history shouldn’t be told in a narrative written for the screen by a white man, to be directed by a white woman.
This is a valid argument that deserves to be had – but due to the fact screenwriter Mark Boal has a background in journalism and has carried out extensive research on the subject (the narrative is pieced together via different accounts from various interviewees who were there), I can’t help but feel the filmmakers have gone out of their way to make sure everything was depicted as accurately as possible. Like the previous collaboration between the director and screenwriter, 2012’s equally controversial Zero Dark Thirty, there is an icy detachment to the way in which the events are portrayed, due to Boal’s journalistic integrity of wanting to depict events as truthfully as possible. Here, that divorce from obvious emotional manipulation results in a piece of cinema even more harrowing and horrifying, especially considering how relevant this story remains fifty years later.
The movie is more emotionally involving than their previous collaboration, but that is entirely due to the fact no sane person could view the torturous, Stanford Prison Experiment-styled “game” that takes up the bulk of the second act (and reverberates across the entire narrative) in a manner that isn’t entirely condemnatory. Bigelow clearly tries to avoid over-emoting and stressing how terrible the events depicted on screen are, but it doesn’t matter. When a fascistic cop (Will Poulter) holds a group of innocent young black men and two white women hostage after shots were fired at his officers, the nasty turn of events are a full sensory assault on your emotions – especially as you know relations between the police and different racial communities have barely improved in the half century since, and that we are merely witnessing one injustice out of a million.
This second act is so tense, in fact, that it appears to take up the bulk of the film’s running time. Many writers have shared the minor criticism that the third act feels like a sharp change in direction after witnessing what is essentially an enclosed sixty minute horror movie in the middle. For me, the lapse in to courtroom drama at the end only furthered the horrors, offering a lack of resolution that stung all the harsher because of the emotional and physical torture we were subjected to beforehand – and a precursor to many other incidents where white law enforcers weren’t convicted for their crimes against African Americans, which is shamefully still a relevant issue today.
This is Bigelow’s second ensemble film in a row, but compared to Zero Dark Thirty, which married an icy emotional detachment with dialogue comprises largely of CIA jargon, here the performers all get a chance to shine. Will Poulter is naturally receiving all the plaudits cast against type as racist cop Krauss, his boyish demeanour only making his actions all the more horrifying to watch. In fact, the creepiest moment is his split second half smile at one of the female suspects he lets go; seeing somebody so evil attempt to show human empathy is always bone chilling.
However, it is the ever present security security guard played by John Boyega that makes the biggest impression. Inexplicably given the top billing, this is a performance that is mostly wordless and reactive, hovering in the background being hired to help the same cops who are relishing the opportunity to freely physically abuse their suspects. Boyega’s face is the most quietly expressive in the entire film, gazing on in a silent horror: being present to the actions, yet being entirely on the margins. Elsewhere, as the lead singer of RnB group The Dramatics, Algee Smith deserves plaudits for giving a performance that spans a wide array of emotions, from initial plucky charisma, to defeatist hopelessness, all in the space of one unforgettably disturbing second act.
Detroit is an intimate, horrifying story told on an expansive canvas. It is essential viewing, both in terms of its powerful, energetic filmmaking and the still relevant story it tells so powerfully.