Film Review: Detroit

One of the most anticipated films of the year, Detroit, directed by Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow depicts the real life events of police brutality at The Algiers Motel in 1967. Anna Stopford discovers a film that is worth all the hype…

Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker) packs her most powerful punch yet, with this intense documentation of police brutality. Detroit recounts, with devastating honesty, the horrific events that unfolded at the Algiers Motel on July 25th 1967 against the backdrop of the chaotic race riots which gripped the city. Members of the notoriously ruthless Detroit PD, led by the sadistic Officer Krauss (Poulter) enter the motel after false reports of a sniper, and proceed to terrorise and brutally assault the ten black men and two white women residing there, shooting three dead at point-blank range. The film progresses in three distinct phases, first, the riots unfold and the mood of hostile disarray is established. Next, the gruelling events within the motel are drawn out with agonizing realism, and finally, we see the heart-breaking aftermath and the fruitless struggle for justice. The result is a comprehensive picture of an American society in which racism is engrained, from an individual level to an institutional one, including law enforcement and the justice system.

The first 45 minutes depicts Detroit in disarray, as shaky point-of-view shots capture the looting and confrontations from street level, transporting the viewer into the centre of the action. The glimpses of police violence are graphic, though not gratuitous, as they feel necessary for the purposes of the film. These shots, interspersed with real radio extracts and footage of the riots recreates a realistic documentary style. Finally, Bigelow’s unique direction compiles brief snatches of activity, snippets of life that are seemingly unrelated, which holistically build up to capture the overall atmosphere at the time. These immersive establishing scenes paint a vivid backdrop for the rest of the film to unfold against.

The main body of the film portrays the brutal treatment of the motel guests, taken hostage by the Detroit PD. It is intense, relentless, and terrifying. Whether the scene is high energy, with Krauss shouting over a cacophony of desperate prayers from the victims, or the silence following a point-blank gunshot, every scene is riddled with an unbroken tension. As a viewer placed as a fly on the wall in the midst of the ordeal, there is a sense of powerless terror as you watch the scenes unfold, a keen awareness that the young black civilians, and to a lesser extent, the white women, are entirely at the mercy of the sadistic, racist officers. With extreme discomfort, I was constantly wary of the firearms being brandished, anxious that the officers handling them could snap at any moment.

This emotionally fraught realism was achieved by outstanding performances from every actor present. There is a temptation to predominately praise Will Poulter, as he commanded each and every scene with frighteningly real vitriol. He portrayed Krauss not with one-dimensional malice, but managed to capture the ugly persona of an arrogant bigot, bolstered by his position of authority, who sincerely believes he is right. The result makes for a truly detestable character. Poulter’s domination was required by his role, however, his success relied upon reciprocation; he was believable as an explosive authoritarian only by the fear he provoked in the other actors, which felt very real. Finally, Algee Smith gave an Oscar-worthy performance as Larry Reed, the lead singer of The Dramatics. Smith’s soulful singing added a heart-breakingly beautiful portrayal of pain, a graceful contrast to the bleak realism of the rest of the film. It’s his contribution that makes Detroit particularly memorable.

Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a black security guard who witnesses much of the evening. His position is difficult; he is neither a perpetrator, nor a victim, and his powerlessness to act removes himself from complicity. Though his complex position is underexplored, Boyega deftly treads cautiously through the volatility with a subtle sombreness and restraint. However, it is in the aftermath that he shines, his humble restraint gives way to devastation, repulsion, and fear.

The Algiers Motel incident is an important story that demands to be told in a way that newspaper clippings are unable. Detroit, with the guidance of witnesses who were there, and its compelling realism, does the horror of the evening justice. The film is faultless in its immersion: the camera work, the meticulous detail of the vintage clothing and sets, and the flawless acting, all combined to create a powerful emotional experience, which demands the audience’s reflection. Detroit epitomises everything that cinema has the potential to achieve, it’s emotive, beautiful and gripping to watch, and held up a mirror to the society that exists outside of the screen. Upon leaving, contemporary parallels of police brutality against African Americans were sadly all too easy to draw. I hope it will contribute a poignant new angle to the debate about the dangers of unchecked power in the hands of the law.

And there’s no doubt that much of the film’s success lies in its thorough reporting of events, including the preceding riots and the subsequent aftermath. However, the exhaustive documentation also presents the only drawback: it’s exhausting – after 2 and a half emotional hours, despite the fact I was deeply invested, my concentration began to wane. The film is a difficult watch, to the point it risked becoming somewhat inaccessible. However, the necessity of being truthful to the whole story outweighs this drawback, and Bigelow’s brilliant direction succeeds in making the film gripping, as well as faithful.


Exposed watched Detroit at The Light Cinema. Click for here their current listings.

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