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Detroit: are the facts more important than the feel?

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Emily Shears asks whether Detroit should have stuck rigidly to reporting events or is it starting a debate that needs to happen?

As a film enthusiast, it’s hard, in 2017, to find a film that isn’t rife with superheroes, unnecessarily remade or ridiculously predictable, or so I find. But once in a while there comes a film that takes you in its grasp and thrusts you slap bang in the middle a scenario where you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time (and in this case, the wrong race), and forces you to place yourself in the characters’ trembling shoes. Cue Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’ and my cinematic emotional reawakening, finally.

‘Detroit’ documents the events of July 1967, 50 years on, focussing on five days of rioting amongst the Michigan city as a response to racial injustice and police brutality against African-Americans after disrupting a gathering in an unlicensed club in the city. The film climaxes when Police are shot at from the Algiers Motel, a safe haven in the heart of riot-torn Detroit, with a starter pistol. This spurs a Police invasion of the Motel and the unnecessary torturing of the guests, resulting in nine assaults and the deaths of three young black men at the hands of three white Police Officers playing a trigger happy game. Whilst based on true events, elements of the film are fictionalised and loosely based on accounts of the events, due to the subject matter and some of those involved remaining silenced by the harrowing happenings.

I have to confess I went into this film a little blind, having never seen a Bigelow film (not even Point Break, I know!) and was mostly intrigued to see John Boyega do something other than portray a disaffected Storm Trooper and look good in a leather jacket. He did not disappoint. Boyega’s portrayal of Melvin Dismukes provided, arguably, the most relatable character for the audience, as a black Security Guard caught between his job, race and moral compass in the Algiers annexe. Boyega didn’t really need a lot of dialogue in the film because his face, in all its earnest innocence, bore the brunt of the events erupting around him and reflected his unenviable position throughout the incident. Will Poulter (and, notably, his eyebrows: think Jack Nicholson fused with the boy next door) gave a chilling performance as Phillip Krauss, the lead Police Officer carrying out the siege on the Algiers Hotel, filled with a sense of entitlement and a brutal swagger of having fellow gun-wielding Officers to carry out his twisted torturous game on the guests.

Amongst the uneasiness and outrageous scenes of the film Bigelow seasons the film with the story of rising band The Dramatics, and their singer Cleveland Larry Brown (Algee Smith), providing what some would deem a stereotypical soundtrack to the film, but also identifying the youthful innocence of those embroiled in the civil unrest that were just trying to get by. Algee Smith’s portrayal of an angry young black man damaged by his experiences was truly heartbreaking, giving some much needed tenderness to a film that is otherwise gruelling in its intensity and resolution (or lack of).

Detroit is not a satisfying film for the audience, I think I counted about three distinct points where I felt so distressed that I wanted to leave the cinema, but that doesn’t make it unwatchable, in fact the complete opposite. It’s almost as hard to review the film as it was to watch and digest what Bigelow serves the audience. The handheld documentary style cinematography had me so immersed in the inside hallway of the Algiers Motel that I felt like a small child sat peering through a stair bannister, trying to glimpse the adult world and then instantly regretting it as events unfolded. The only solace was occasionally peering around the theatre and realising I was sat in the Errol Flynn Filmhouse and that fellow audience members were also visibly recoiling in anger and shock at the events on screen. The lack of justice for the victims of the Algiers Motel incident was only satisfying in that Bigelow resisted the urge to give the film a Hollywood happy ending (as if that were even possible) causing the audience to feel the anger and emotional exhaustion of the characters long after they’d left the screening.
Debate has circulated Detroit regarding whether Bigelow was the right person to make it, whether it should have stuck solely to the facts and whether it in fact promotes police brutality with the lack of consequences for the offending officers.

Whilst some of the films fictionalised elements and omissions can be interpreted as giving the film a passive stance on the shocking historical events, the film is responsible enough to provoke conversations about race, brutality and justice that are needed in 2017 more than ever. If there’s one thing that this film achieves I hope it’s that we won’t witness similar events or need to have these conversations in another 50 years’ time.
Watch out for Victoria and Abdul, and Kingsman, The Golden Circle coming up at the Errol Flynn Cinema.

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1 Comment on Detroit: are the facts more important than the feel?

  1. Yes, I went to see this at Cineworld in Northampton (twice). Visceral, brutal and claustrophobic. Bigelow makes audiences feel claustrophobic. That’s her style, that’s her MO so to speak.

    She did a similar thing with ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. Detroit is my favourite film of the year so far. With America at the moment, it truly shows that not a lot has changed for black people in fifty years.

    I too, haven’t seen Point Break but this is certainly my favourite of the films of hers I have seen. And I know her next film will probably just as important. She’s similar to Oliver Stone (my favourite director) in this regard. She likes to make films about socially-important topics that really pack a punch. Stone did ‘JFK’, ‘Platoon’, ‘Snowden’, ‘Salvador’ and ‘Nixon’ to name a few.

    I love these sorts of films. Ava DuVernay did a similar thing with Selma and 13TH. Socially relevant films that hold just as much weight in Europe / the UK as they do in America, if you bring in Black Britain’s relationship history with the police. Check out Sky Atlantic’s Guerrilla, a great miniseries that shows a snapshot Black Britain’s relationship with the police in the 1970s.

    Great write up!

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