Detroit is a powerful, painful film that shouldn’t be relevant in today’s world but sadly still is.
Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film tells a tense, uncomfortable and moving tale of what happened to a group of guests at a Detroit motel, on one night during the riots of ’67. It’s a difficult watch, it’s often unpleasant but it’s also compelling. You will simultaneously want to find out what happens while wanting the film to end. That may sound like criticism but it isn’t. It’s exactly what the film intends to be. It’s exactly what the film needs to be.
Dealing with the all too familiar subject of police corruption and brutality towards black communities, it’s scary how close to home this film seems while being set forty years ago. Detroit opens with child-like drawings detailing the history of black oppression within America, taking us from the days of slavery up to the start of the film in the summer of 1967. From here on in, we’re pretty much thrown right into it; the mass rioting, looting and arson that took place in the summer as the local communities made a statement about how they were being treated. These riots would lead to thousands of arrests, irreparable damage, the national guard being called in and, worst of all, too many deaths. Although in it’s early stages it paints a broad image of the riots, the film comes into it’s own once we enter the Algiers Motel.
The first act introduces us to the people that are going to come together in this horrendous event. It quickly introduces us to their lives and their personalities, and we can relate to them instantly. Yet by dropping us straight into the riots, although effective in one sense, it could do with more of a lead up as to why they are rioting, why are they unhappy. The film relies on the audiences prior knowledge of black oppression in America, which everyone has at least a basic understanding of, however as a film it would benefit from showing us this in a more solid form than the summary at the beginning. We’re thrown straight into men destroying their own neighborhoods and committing crimes. Although they aren’t portrayed as bad people, for the sake of a fair representation, the film would have benefited by showing us Police manipulating their position of power as well as these riots at the beginning of the feature.
That however, would be my only criticism of this piece of filmmaking. We build up to this horrible event slowly, sometimes it might feel too slowly, but the film is paced perfectly. To go into too much detail about the second and third acts of the film would take something away from the viewing experience. I knew nothing about the incident and the main sequence of the film had me on the edge of my seat. It’s unbearable tense and painful to sit through but that’s what it has to be. It’s one of the most atmospheric sequences of the year and has you constantly dreading what is going to happen next. The consequences of everyone’s actions feel real, they feel like they’re having an impact.
Interestingly, as the film fades to black, the filmmakers have decided to make a statement about how the full truth of what happened that night has never come out. There have always been conflicting stories and accounts, some for the purpose of cover ups, others down to the panic and stress of the situation. The film openly tells us that they have dramatised and constructed scenes and conversations where there are gaps in official information. The film is based on countless eye witness accounts and court testimonies and it definitely has it’s point of view but the honesty to state that this might not be the full truth of the event is brave. For a film that could have been overly biased it does a great job of getting it’s point across while showing the grey areas and the good and the bad in both sides.
The atmosphere of Detroit is what will stay with you but the directing, editing and fine performances from all those involved, especially John Boyega and Will Poulter, are what creates that unforgettable tone.
A powerful film, centered around one horrific incident taking place within an unforgivable situation, Detroit is brought to life brilliantly by Bigelow and her cast.