Detroit – Film Review by David Minogue
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Stars: Algee Smith, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, John Boyega, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever.
Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for best film and director in 2009 for The Hurt Locker. She followed it with Zero Dark Thirty which was not only well received with the critics but was also her most financially successful film to date. While both of these films featured the American military, Bigelow’s new film Detroit concentrates on a key time in American history from 1967 which in turn draws awareness to events in today’s America.
Detroit primarily examines the events that sparked the Detroit riots that began on the night of the 23rd July 1967 when the mainly white Detroit police force broke up an unlicensed after hours drinking venue, filled with African American men and women who were celebrating the return of Vietnam veterans. The arrest of this group of people led to five days of civil unrest which included rioting, looting and the destruction of many businesses and other buildings in the city. This led to the decision by Governor George W. Romney and President Lyndon B. Johnson to send in both the National Guard and parts of the airborne divisions to assist the Detroit police force to regain a rule of law and order in the city.
The narrative of the film begins with a short but very effective animated sequence by artist Jacob Lawrence that shows how social inequality came to be in a city where the predominately African American community lived in segregated areas of high unemployment and social problems and where the police force were mainly white men who governed with high levels of racism.
In the few days of the Detroit riots 43 people were killed. Any of these individual killings, in which the majority were African Americans, could have been the focus of the film. Bigelow does not attempt to cover the entire period of the days and nights of the riots but instead concentrates on what became known as the Algiers motel incident where three young African American men were killed in the course of one night.
The film is completely linear in its narration but is very much a film of three parts. The first is the immediacy of the riots themselves where the initial period of civil unrest is depicted but also highlights two specific acts of violence. One is committed by the National Guard and the other by a patrolman called Krauss (Will Poulter) who while based on a real life person is fictionalised in the film as a character. The majority of the other characters are all real life people of whom several are alive to this day. The racism and sadism of certain members of the Detroit police force is most specifically embodied in the character of Krauss who has absolutely no morals or redeeming qualities. His two fellow patrolmen Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole) serve under his orders despite all three being of equal rank and file. What Bigelow does well in this film is in showing that members of the National Guard, through their inaction rather than their actions, were as equally responsible for the horrific events that happened in the Algiers Motel.
The beginning of the film documents the initial hopes and dreams of singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and his band The Dramatics whose venture into stardom is cut short when their debut performance is cancelled. That night Larry and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Lattimore) in order to avoid the areas of rioting go to the Algiers motel where they meet two white women Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) and later in the company of other men an action leads members of the National Guard, a security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) and the police to the motel where the people are rounded up, questioned, taunted and terrorised mainly by the aforementioned Krauss and his two colleagues.
While all of the performances of the actors in this sequence are well portrayed some of the most powerful scenes are by Anthony Mackie as the Vietnam veteran Greene whose uniform and identification, and in turn services in the line of duty, mean nothing to Krauss’s mind-set. Likewise the relationship of Julie and Karen to the men is automatically questioned.
The power of Bigelow’s direction, the writing of Mark Boal and most of all the performances of her cast is what makes the Algiers Motel sequence one that will never be forgotten.
While this film is very much a drama through editing, lighting and direction it uses tropes and filmmaking techniques of horror cinema. The motel scenes in focusing on the hallway recreates that of the besieged house.
This is a film that has been made at a key time in American history and which you most definitely will be affected by. It has already sparked much debate in relation to all of the issues and violations depicted in it. It is a film that I highly recommend you to see.