Frantic, frenzied and fraught with racial tension, Detroit is Bigalow at her very best. For 143 minutes unrelenting waves of impassioned violence will leave you breathless. The Cinéma Vérité style throws us headfirst into the chaos, as if to witness the brutality of the 1967 race riots with our own eyes. Whether you agree that this was Bigalow’s story to tell or not, it is undoubtably one of the most important films of the year.
Detroit opens with a collection of acclaimed African-American artist Jacob Lawrence’s work brought to life, giving vital socio-historical context to the audience. Following the conclusion of WW1 an estimated 6 million black Americans migrated from the rural South to the urban North-East under the false promise of employment. Poverty, ghettoisation of black neighbourhoods and the blatant racism they were subject to were all factors in the combustible tension, the only thing missing was the spark to ignite conflict and incite change.
That spark came on July 23rd, 1967. Detroit police raided an unlicensed club hosting a party for two returning Vietnam veterans causing outrage among the locals. Stones and bottles were thrown at the officer’s cars as they pull away from the scene and a few, fuelled by anger, break into and rob a convenience store. The next 5 days saw over 7200 people arrested, 1,189 people injured and 43 dead, the third most deadly riot the United States has ever seen. Bigalow uses the same dynamic shooting style as her previous films The Hurtlocker and Zero Dark Thirty to capture the mayhem and the result is a visceral and harrowing cinematic experience.
With the scene set the focus narrows to an incident at the Algiers Motel, a safe haven for those looking to escape the violence. The National Guard mistake a starter pistol fire for a sniper and raid the motel alongside Detroit Police. Everyone inside the building is lined up facing the wall and three police officers (Will Poulter, Ben O’Toole and Jack Reynor) begin a brutal interrogation. By the end of the night three black men have been gunned down and the remaining suspects have all been harshly beaten, among them are two white girls, Motown singer Larry (Algee Smith) and Vietnam veteran Greene (Anthony Mackie).
The depiction of what is essentially torture is in turn torturous to watch. It was sickening to see the callous and bloodthirsty treatment of innocent people by the police. Will Poulter’s performance as the ringleader Krauss was haunting, casting perfection of an actor who continues to prove himself in leading roles. John Boyega similarly impressed with his portrayal of Melvin Dismukes, a security guard who entered the motel to help arrest the ‘sniper’ but was powerless to stop the monstrosities he witnessed, as we the viewer were. I think the camera lingered 15 minutes too long here. The intent is clear but after the message is made and ingrained through violent imagery the narrative should have pushed on.
The conclusion to Detroit offers no comfort or closure to the audience. Important social issues such as racism deserve to be tackled in film and Bigalow deserves praise for doing so. She shines a light on this story matter-of-factly, not holding back the key details that carry the most emotional weight. 50 years on it is disheartening to see how little we have come, Ferguson (2014), the death of Eric Garner in New York (2014) and of Freddie Gray in Baltimore (2015) are just three of countless incidents demonstrating the same intrinsic racism.
There has been substantial criticism surrounding the race of both Bigalow and screenwriter Mark Boal. Angelica Jade Bastien (rogerebert.com) says ‘watching Detroit I realised that I’m not interested in white perceptions of black pain’, continuing to state that the film is not ‘authentic’ as a result. Such comments are simply ludicrous and there is a certain irony in racist attacks of a film that attacks racism. If the purpose of art is to inspire critical thought and agitate change could the ethnicity of the creator undermine the necessity of the discussion? Absolutely not.