A violent, unflinching look at police brutality and racism in America that packs a punch but doesn’t scratch the surface
Academy Award winners Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal team up again for Detroit, a film based on real and tragic events.The film, about unprovoked and wildly over-zealous police brutality against African Americans, is poignant – particularly in light of countless recent incidences of violence and murder against black US citizens. In fact, the opening sequence of Detroit, which shows then-governor George Romney and Congressman John Conyers appealing for calm, alongside shots of violence against the black community, is extremely powerful, and is an excellent introduction into the story of what happened in Motor City in July 1967. A police raid on an unlicensed bar led to days of violence, unrest and death in Detroit. Thousands were injured, and dozens were killed; the National Guard was called into the city.
The film’s opening scene alludes to the Detroit-wide panic, the violence and anger that gripped the city. But the rest of the film focusses mainly on what came to be known as the ‘Algiers Motel Incident’, in which three black youths were murdered and a group of teenagers and young men were brutalised at the hands of police. It’s an important incident, and a horrifying event that speaks to the heart of racial inequality and gun violence in America. But as the film progresses, it seems to lose track of the ‘bigger picture’; issues of racist establishments, poverty, inequality and police brutality lose focus as instances of incredibly visceral violence at the hands of a few police officers becomes the main plot point.
Will Poulter, Jack Reynor and Ben O’Toole play the three cops who are left in charge of the group of young black men and two young white women at the Algiers Motel, after there are reports of gunshots. Poulter’s officer is, simply, the cinematic sociopath to end cinematic sociopaths – bent on inflicting violence, he hates the citizens in his charge and is irredeemably and undeniably evil. While the clear and obvious racial inequality within the city’s services – from the police to the government – is obvious, this character’s unabashed evilness almost seems separate. This is an example of an evil man, not a meaningful symbol of the US police’s institutionalised racism.
The film is long – and while there’s plenty of time to explore the big, societal issues that sit intrinsically within any discussion of a huge riot like this, the film instead becomes a ‘survive the night’ horror-fest; guerrilla camera shots move between claustrophobic and confined spaces, both effective at conveying the characters’ fear and isolating in their dizzy disorientation. It’s gruesome, it’s visceral, it’s almost unbearable – some might say it’s extremely effective in portraying the unpalatable violence shown to victims of violence and brutality. But with each passing blow (and there are many), the impact becomes less about the on-screen victims and more about putting the audience through the ringer. It’s all too easy to forget that this is bloody violence that took place in the context of a huge social issue – at times it seems like it’s just about a murderous maniac going to town on defenceless hostages.
This visceral – and there really isn’t another word for it – film is extremely affecting. Shot in documentary style, the unstable camera and constant movement of the frame is clever in evoking the mood, but eventually feels too contrived. The gritty realism present in Bigelow and Boal’s previous work isn’t apparent here, and it almost seems as though in trying to address the huge and eternal issue of American racism it misses the point. There’s a lot of in-your-face action and almost gratuitous shots of violence and trauma that is overly sensationalist without adding any narrative value.
We know Bigelow for her films about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; Detroit is every inch the war film, and viewers feel as though they are well and truly in the trenches
There are some truly great performances on-screen, though. John Boyega’s emotion is palpable throughout, as witness/victim security guard Melvin Dismukes. Boyega is dynamic and kinetic on-screen, each quavering note in his voice and bead of sweat on his brow seems genuine. Anthony Mackie is a powerhouse as Greene, a soldier just home from the war in Vietnam who is plunged into unflinching violence in Detroit. Algee Smith plays Larry Reed, a musician caught up in the melee, with heart-breaking honesty – in fact, the film’s (mostly) young cast delivers a tour de force ensemble performance that amplifies the violent acts done to and by their characters.
There are, of course, colossal questions that demand to be asked about issues that lie at the heart of the Detroit riots. In today’s America, issues of violence, racism, inequality and injustice should be at the top of everyone’s agenda. The filmmakers attempts to make a movie about racist violence, and succeed in creating an almost unbearably powerful piece of cinema; the violence seems like it’s never ending and Bigelow’s choice of shots and camera point of view are clearly making a political statement. Powerful, visceral, affecting. Gratuitous, violent, unbearable. There are a lot of ways to describe the film.
However, in focussing on one group of people and one particular incident of violence in the riots, Bigelow and Boal miss the opportunity to use this huge platform to focus on the bigger issues. Every shot and every line feels pointed, staged, over-loaded; what could have been a poignant and deeply tragic film about institutionalised racism virtually becomes torture-porn. The almost absurd level of violence and sadism inflicted by the cops – Poulter’s character in particular – eventually becomes less of a searing portrayal of a gross evil, and more a scandalous shock tactic that betrays the severity of the film’s subject matter.
Instead of asking important questions and offering a nuanced view, Detroit doesn’t live up to its name, and forgets about the city in turmoil outside the Algiers Motel. It could have been sensational – a war film about the Detroit riot from the team behind The Hurt Locker should have been phenomenal. But this film introduces the concept of the riots, and then pushes brutality and horror up against the screen and makes viewers stare at it for two hours. There’s enough gratuitous violence on the news channels these days – it didn’t need to be converted into a feature-length film.
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