An historical drama based on real-life events using a mix of documentary footage alongside fictional re-enactment, Kathryn Bigelow’s long-awaited Detroit is a no-holds-barred depiction of police brutality and racism set amid the 1967 riots.
Opening with a beautiful animation based on Jacob Lawrence’s paintings of The Great Migration, overlaid with text detailing the racism in the northern states of the USA, the story begins at an unlicensed social club. Here, the majority white police harassed and intimidated the black guests – many of whom were soldiers celebrating their return from Vietnam. After herding all of them into police vans, multiple arrests were made. The city’s inhabitants, angry at the racism and police brutality, fought back. This conflict became known as the “Detroit riots” and lasted five days. These events, and the state’s subsequent violent crackdown on its citizens, paralysed the city, but this film focuses instead on one event during this time: what unfolded at the Algiers Motel.
In the early hours of 25 July 1967, Detroit police, backed by National Guardsmen who were drafted in to the city to control the discord, responded to reports of a sniper in the area close to the Algiers Motel. They stormed the motel, savagely interrogated its guests, used indiscriminate extreme force, and threatened them with death. By its end, three of the guests, all of them black men, were dead. Nine other people, seven black men and two white women, emerged beaten and traumatised. None of the victims, dead or alive, received justice. The white police officers accused of murder successfully plead self-defence in court.
By zeroing in on one location for the majority of the film, Bigelow and writer Mark Boal thrust the viewer into a claustrophobic nightmare. The police, led by Philip Krauss (harrowingly played by Will Poulter), are brutally violent, both physically and psychologically, and their tormenting of the motel’s residents is unrelenting. The viewer is forced to endure the most horrifying depictions of racism and violence, and it’s profoundly upsetting. The cinematography (by Barry Ackroyd) – much of it hand held – feels both urgent and exhausting. It’s as harrowing as documentary war footage and reminiscent of Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker.
Whilst the sadistic interplay between the police and their coercive dialogue has been fictionalised, the violent acts committed by them – and the death of three of the young men – are based on accounts of what happened that night, not least by security guard Melvin Dismukes, who attempted to be a peacemaker and calm the situation, but who then found himself on trial with the same police officers he struggled to control. Dismukes, played with moving subtlety by John Boyega, was a consultant on the film and says it is “99.5% accurate as to what went down at the Algiers and in the city at the time.” The film makes for uncomfortable viewing, but for whom?
You feel disgust that white people could behave with such racism and violence towards black people, and perhaps this is what its objective is: reflection on one’s position and placement in a history which has its foundations on violence and white power. Criticisms of Detroit have suggested that the portrayal of violence against black people by white people is almost pornographic, so gratuitous and titillating is its portrayal here and that it is for white people to consume, not black people. In addition, there has been talk about the film’s exclusion of black women (who have no lead roles at all), and how it has ignored the active role black women play in fighting police brutality.
These are valid critiques and reinforced by the fact that the creative team behind it are white; perhaps there is no escaping their ‘white gaze’. However, Boyega has defended Bigelow, saying, “She was just so collaborative, and I think that in itself is the key to sometimes tapping into a perspective or a culture that is different from yours.” Dismukes, also, has argued in her favour: “I had never felt open to telling my side of the story until I met Kathryn,” he said, “but she really listened to me and promised to get the truth out, and I think she did an amazing job.” Bigelow seems to have taken some of this criticism on board.
“I thought, ‘Am I the perfect person to tell this story? No.’ However, I’m able to tell this story, and it’s been fifty years since it’s been told.” It’s arguable that Bigelow’s highly regarded status in the film industry allowed her access to the resources and finances to get the film made. Being female Bigelow is also in the minority in a hugely male dominated industry; more women-helmed films are a positive, but her being white is probably the key factor here. Detroit doesn’t examine systemic racist violence, or question how this is nurtured by white supremacy. By focusing on one incident and largely on one policeman who tortures and terrorises his victims, it’s easy to write off these acts as just “one bad apple”.
We can pigeonhole this individual as being pathological and sadistic, and not question how it is that he turned out that way; how it is that a dominant white society can brutalise its black inhabitants, or how history, and slavery, has shaped this. What’s missing from the film, ironically, is historical context, and how this is still impacting black people in America today. Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner are just a handful of black men killed by police in recent years, and like the men in Detroit, none of their killers have served jail time. It’s notable that Bigelow has previously covered racist police violence in her films (Strange Days was centred around the murder, and subsequent cover up, by white police of a black rapper called Jeriko One), so perhaps it’s not fair to entirely dismiss Detroit.
Clearly Bigelow is keen to question racism and actively engage viewers of her films in political conversations. Maybe Detroit’s weakness is in avoiding the deeper structural questions of racism and inequality. However, its strength lies in forcing viewers to confront uncomfortable truths about America’s history, and for today’s audiences, who might know little about the Civil Rights Movement of fifty years ago, particularly if they are white, this film will be both a lesson and a call to action for change.
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack