FILM REVIEW: Detroit (2017)

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There’s no doubt that the story at the centre of Detroit, depicting the murders of three African American men at the Algiers Motel in 1967 during brutal riots taking place across the city, is a powerful one. It’s a story that has relevance, made all the more poignant by the current climate of renewed racism in America today; from the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville to the instances of unjust police brutality still befalling black men, regularly. There is no question that this is a story that needed to be told, because sadly, it seems race relations in the US haven’t really progressed a whole lot since these events took place.

Director Kathryn Bigelow has teamed up once again with screenwriter Mark Boal (their third collaboration), to bring the story of the riots, and ensuing murders, to the screen. In crafting the screenplay, Bigelow and Boal weave together factual evidence and witness testimonies with their fiction, giving this a docu-drama quality for the most part. It’s clear that Bigelow has set out to make watching Detroit a completely immersive experience, somewhat akin to watching a war film. She bombards the audience with enough ear-splitting sound, fast-paced editing and vertiginous shaky-cam to give you actual motion sickness (no joke: the person I went to see this with had to leave the cinema). This isn’t a style suited to everyone – Bigelow makes some bold decisions in how she chooses to present the story, and not all of them pay off.

If someone were to describe to me the structure of Detroit, with its collage-like use of different genre modes to build a larger picture of a complex story, my interest would be piqued. Conceptually, it seems like an innovative way of delving into this piece of history. Bigelow isn’t playing it safe or just giving us another Selma; she’s doing something new, something unconventional with the material. The film starts out, literally, painting a broad picture of the migration of African Americans from the southern US to the industrialized north. We’re then placed inside the action of the riots’ inciting event, a police raid of a Detroit party in July of 1967. From this point on we’re given a ‘front line’ vantage point as tensions between police and residents boil over and riots begin to break out across the city. This section of the movie – which is only the beginning – is most reminiscent of Bigelow’s earlier work: it’s a war film, through and through.

As we find our way to the Algiers Motel, though, and are introduced to the characters that will be pulled into the central incident, there is a drastic tonal shift into pure horror. The torture of the men and women unlucky enough to be inside the Motel on that night is built up to slowly, and then microscopically played out. Every detail, every drop of blood, is lingered on and intensified. The tension is almost unbearable. Bigelow chooses to shift between POVs rather than placing us in the shoes of just one character. We feel what the victims are feeling, what the police officers are feeling, and what John Boyega’s character is feeling as he is caught in the middle of the conflict.

I half expected Detroit to end just as Algee Smith’s Larry (the lead singer of ‘The Dramatics’ and the film’s most well-rounded character) escapes from the Motel into the arms of a police officer who is actually willing to help him. At this point – about two hours in – I (and probably the rest of the audience) was feeling pretty deflated. But there’s still another round to go, and another tonal shift into ‘courtroom drama’, as we see a depiction of parts of the trial that took place following July 25th’s harrowing events.

The combination of the gut-wrenching, nerve-shredding sequence that is the film’s middle section and its war-like opening is deeply and painfully affecting. Add to this the concluding part, which is like a final kick in the ribs, and you end up in a state of supreme angst by the time it’s all over. I’m not suggesting that we need to be left feeling warm and fuzzy – the story is harrowing, its details difficult to process – but Bigelow’s style of filmmaking is such an assault on the audience’s senses that it makes the experience of watching Detroit hard work.

Detroit is an interesting and complex film, with many layers and nuances, but it is deeply flawed. It contains moments of ingenuity, and some excellent performances, but it is in no way ‘enjoyable’ to sit through. The transitions between genre styles are extremely jarring and it’s hard to find something tangible to grab onto as Bigelow’s camera lurches from scene to scene. Algee Smith brings some much needed heart to the film – he is something resembling an anchor – whilst John Boyega stands around looking as harrowed as we feel. It’s an endurance test, an exercise in resilience; and it’s not something that I would ever want to watch again.

 

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