“DETROIT” THE NEW movie from Katherine Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark”) is such a viscerally powerful, emotionally draining movie that you leave the cinema feeling as though you’ve been kicked in the guts. And wanting to fling your griefs in the face of the newly unleashed racist America.
The story is based on interviews and transcripts of a real event, and it traces the burning path of the riots (civil war really) in Detroit in the 60’s, from its ignition to its burnt out end. It zeroes in on the events of one night in the Algiers Motel, when three pumped-up, racist policemen in search of a sniper beat up the (mainly male, mainly black) guests there and murdered three of them.
Without for a moment compromising on the ever-building tension, Bigelow pulls off a wonderful juggling act. Within its simple narrative arc (two young musicians fleeing the riots find themselves in an oasis of safety, dancing and – white – girls, only for the trigger happy – and eventually exonerated – cops to burst in and explode a century of racist rage) she balances three distinct, but interwoven ontologies.
It’s a clever structural device that allows Bigelow to explore what is her central intent: the nature of viewpoint.
The trauma of the murders is bordered by two perspectives. There’s a broad quasi-documentary overview initially using animation to map out the Great Migration during World War 1 and the rise of urban segregation. This is followed by cleverly intercut news footage of the riots with shocking, in your face, street level action: the police brutality, the group anger, the fear, the looting, the burning buildings, the tear gas, the panic and the battalions of army and National Guard troops that storm in, like an invading force.
Almost at the same time, we’re lifted away from these scenes of chaos and violence to be part of another perspective of Detroit: the Detroit of Tamla Mowtown, the Supremes, Martha Reese and the Vandellas and the twirling happy moves of soul music. One band (The Dramatics, still performing), whose shot of fame is wrenched away when a concert is cancelled due to the riots, and in particular two of its members, form the bridge between these two worlds of war and peace. Bigelow focuses in on two band members to unspool her tale of a country adrift, through an intimate snapshot of that night of trauma.
The two young musicians who find themselves in the Algiers Motel are, like young men everywhere, seeking fame, fun and, at the sight of two pretty girls, a night of ‘romance’. Their viewpoint of the riots is that it’s something you need to get as far away from as possible. The cops who smash in the hotel doors are seeking a would-be sniper. From their view, what they see isn’t a group of young guys, but a gang of blacks, who, clearly must be guilty and who needs to be taught a lesson. That there are white women on the scene can only mean one thing: the women are whores (and therefore fit to be slapped around) and the oldest of the men (an ex Air force pilot) must be their pimp.
There’s no presumption of innocence. They quickly assume that torture is the easiest route to “the truth”. But their torture “games” go wrong and result in murder.
War. Torture. Reminding blacks of their place. It’s the American way.
In the centre of this maelstrom is a young security guard, Dismukes (John Boyega channeling Denzell Washington). He tries to be the voice of calm; the one who reaches out to and befriends some of the patrolling National Guard. But, wrong time and wrong place. He’s an unwitting witness to the murders. And, as usual, to the white authorities, that he is black matters more than “the content of his character”. He becomes the scapegoat cover-up for the racist police crimes. This “good” black, who to other blacks is the Uncle Tom black, quickly and conveniently becomes the “suspect” black.
In the court case that follows, the racist policemen are repositioned as merely young enthusiastic officers trying to do a job under trying circumstances. Because all the witnesses (those who were beaten up by the policemen) are all black, they’re presented to a white jury as ex-cons and untrustworthy witnesses; the girls are just loose women who would sleep around with black men.
Bigelow tries hard to avoid open proselytizing and the movie (written and shot pre-Trump) ends on a potentially positive note: that the music with which the movie begun could be the route back to some semblance of healing; that the nasty aggression of the racist cops doesn’t define the city, the country, but may be but one (anomalous?) dimension.
Boyega (Finn in “Star Wars: the Force Awakens”) is the ‘big’ name in the movie. But, as the racist cop, this is Will Poluter’s Oscar-contending, show. Poulter had his big break-out moments as the gay dancing son in “We’re The Millers” and as one of the scumbags in “The Revenant”. As they say in serious literary circles, “This dude can act!”. And, as a GOT fan, it was nice to see Hannah Murray – intimidated, scared, furious, feisty, fearless – as one of the two girls in the motel. Ms. Murray is Gilly, Samwell Tarley’s partner in GOT
I wish this movie had been released a year ago. Then I – we – could all pretend this was Bigelow’s grand, well crafted, Spielbergian recreation of a moment of American history. Sadly this is probably less a piece of history…more a story of a future soon to be realized.
DETROIT. Dir: Katherine Bigelow. With: John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Will Poulter. Written by: Mark Boal (“Zero Dark Thirty”, “The Hurt Locker”, “In the Valley of Elah”). Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd (“Jason Bourne”, “The Big Short”, “Captain Phillips”)