Detroit – movie review

by James Robins / 14 November, 2017
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A film about the 1967 riot revisits a night of police-led terror.

For five days in July 1967, Detroit became an inferno. A police raid in a poor black community kicked off a spree of looting and, in turn, a police crackdown. The locals refused to surrender or to accede to the pleas of their congressman to stop destroying their own neighbourhoods. “Burn it down!” they hollered back. A slum is no home, after all. The National Guard was called in, bayonets fixed.

Kathryn Bigelow, who has directed two features about American conflicts overseas (The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), imagines those burning city blocks as if they were a battlefield. She crams three days of rioting into the opening act before zooming in on a hallway at the Algiers Motel, and remaining there as the conflagration rages in the streets outside.

Most of the film’s 150-minute running time is spent in the oppressive confines of that hallway: it becomes a torture chamber, and a microcosm for the upheavals of the 1960s, if not the country’s entire, uncomfortable past.

What happened that night at the Algiers has been the subject of much conjecture and many theories, though no firm truths have ever emerged. What we do know is that a team composed of city and state police and soldiers raided the motel, suspecting a sniper. By morning, three African-American men were dead from gunshot wounds.

Bigelow and her regular writer Mark Boal, relying on reams of testimony, imagine an evening of unbending horror. Presiding over a line-up of innocent black men and white women are three white cops and National Guardsmen led by Krauss (Will Poulter), whose cherubic face belies his sadism. “I’m just going to assume you’re all criminals,” he jeers, “because you probably are.” The captives are treated to a nauseating array of cruelties and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, shooting with a handheld camera, captures every blow, every whimper, every insult. At the periphery is a black security guard (John Boyega, brilliant yet subtle) torn between competing demands of racial loyalty and the uniform.

Those seemingly endless scenes are barely watchable not only in their own right, but also because they carry the dark weight of the present tense. Anyone familiar with the painful legacy of racist police violence in the US will instantly recall other contemporary names: Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner; Tamir Rice.

By intercutting archive footage and photographs from the period, Bigelow invites us to consider Detroit as a historical document – a re-enactment rather than a dramatisation.

A languid post-Algiers sequence covers the police officers’ trial (and inevitable acquittal) and the trauma of a survivor (Larry Reed, singer in R&B group The Dramatics, played by Algee Smith). This somewhat cauterises the impact of the film, but again shows us just how elusive true justice can be.

Bigelow’s point is clear: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

This article was first published in the November 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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