Detroit

November 10, 2017
Welcome to Detroit. Have a nice day
Welcome to Detroit. Have a nice day

If ever a film were poised on the edge of the great divide that exists in the United States today, it’s Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Like Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2015) it draws on the turbulent history of American race relations to make a not-so-subtle point about the present. After almost two-and-a-half hours, one leaves the cinema with a strong feeling that the ugly racism we have just witnessed is still alive and well.

For Detroit, think Ferguson, Missouri; or Charlottesville, Virginia. The Detroit race riots of 1967 lasted for five days, saw 7,000 arrests and 43 deaths, but nobody paraded round waving Nazi flags, as we saw in Charlottesville.

It’s the alarming ignorance of history that makes the United States such a dismal spectacle today. Even more disturbing is the fact that so many people have no interest in hearing anything that conflicts with their prejudices, as if facts were a matter of personal taste. The malaise, of course, begins at the top, with a President who can suggest that some Neo-Nazis are “really great people.”

All this is so obvious do we really need another movie to drive home the point? Kathryn Bigelow and scriptwriter, Mark Boal, who collaborated on The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2013), are true believers in the cinema’s power to expose political inequities and prise open people’s minds. If those minds remain resolutely closed the filmmakers can always say it was something they just had to do.

Realistically, Detroit is destined to preach to the converted while the rednecks and racists watch the next superhero movie. A secondary problem is that, as a white woman making a movie about black people, Bigelow has steered into the choppy waters of Political Correctness. Unlike DuVernay or Spike Lee, it’s already being said that “white privilege” precludes her from understanding her contentious subject.

There may be some truth in this, but Bigelow’s sympathies are so overwhelmingly with the black characters such complaints seem rather fatuous. What she brings to the package are superior directorial skills, crafting a powerful narrative out of one particular incident, when the police raided the ramshackle Algiers Hotel in search of a sniper.

The raid happens at the height of the riots when the streets are full of nervous police and national guardsmen. Inside the hotel there’s a party or two in progress. One of the revellers decides to fire a starter’s gun out the window to tease the police, the ironic signal for the beginning of an interminable ordeal.

For at least an hour, a young, baby-faced policeman named Krauss (Will Poulter), enacts a reign of terror over the hotel guests. We have already watched Krauss shoot a rioter in the back with no remorse. During this night in the Algiers he reveals himself as a cunning sadist and sociopath, acting as ringleader to a couple of dangerously stupid and narrow-minded comrades. The presence of two white party girls in a room with a black man is enough to set all their bells ringing.

The suspects are abused, beaten, and subjected to mock executions. The violence ultimately becomes exhausting for the participants and for the viewer. The tension increases, slackens, and ratchets back up again.

Bigelow spends the first part of the film introducing us to the lead characters – notably to Larry (a lively performance by Algee Smith), a singer who hopes to make it big with his group, The Dramatics; and to Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard, who stands by while the abuse unfolds.

Because the actual events of that night are disputed, Bigelow and Boal have had to make creative choices about which characters to focus on, and which stories to believe. Larry was singled out not only because he is more colourful than the rest, but because that traumatic evening at the Algiers would have an impact on the rest of his life. Dismukes is a more problematic figure, and easily the film’s most poorly resolved role.

The filmmakers have accepted Dismukes’s claim that he was only a bystander who took no part in the violence, but his passivity almost defies comprehension. In a standard Hollywood action flick he would fly to the aid of his soul brothers. In Detroit he stands like a statue while all sorts of outrages are perpetrated.

The Marxists would see Dismukes as the victim who has internalised and accepted the fact of his own oppression. For viewers he is a beacon of indecisiveness. We realise we are not watching a drama but a piece of speculative journalism, which presents a plausible account of the hotel raid but doesn’t investigate the characters’ motivations.

Although the ending presents a predictable travesty of justice the entire film is a study in racial double standards garnished by a lingering vision of evil, with Krauss as the personification of white authority. The story may be true but the slant is carefully calibrated to provide shock therapy for the slumbering political conscience.

Detroit
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Written by Mark Boal
Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Jack Reynor, Kaitlyn Denver, Ben O’Toole
USA, rated MA 15+, 143 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 11 November, 2017