Social ills are cyclical. One glance at American news bulletins in 2017 and a peek at the Kathryn Bigelow-directed film, Detroit, and it feels like the same picture. Except in the film, which is set in Michigan’s largest city, the year is 1967.
Fifty years later, there are still race wars, race denialism and people placed in power who are protected from punishment for the wrong they inflict on innocent people. But we’re here to talk about a film.
Bigelow, whose films include the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, takes the viewer back to the 12th Street Riot. To the Algiers Motel where three black teenagers were killed by white policemen while two white women and seven black men were beaten horrifically by the same men of the law.
The viewer follows the gaze of a security guard, a singer, a cute girl who believes she is free to associate with whoever she wants to in the 1960s and we also get a glimpse of how war veterans are rated according to their skin colour.
During these riots, where there’s a lot of looting and not enough cash to go around, Melvin Dismukes (Boyega) takes on two jobs just to live. One of them is as a security guard at a convenience store – on account of all the looting, you see.
Algee Smith – remember him from The New Edition Story? – plays a singer named Larry Reed and he and his friend, Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) find themselves stuck at the Algiers Motel after a foiled performance. While there, they meet two girls and they hang out with them and their friends.
After a silly prank gone wrong, a police officer named Philip Krauss (Poulter) and his colleagues believe there is a sniper shooting from the motel so they head on over. Krauss and his cronies already have cases of assaulting innocent black people against them, but they also have the law on their side. By the time they get to the motel, they think it’s going to be just another day at the office – but this time, the assaults and deaths make headlines.
Detroit spends most of the movie detailing what Bigelow and writer, Mike Boal, believe must have gone down that night and the court case is left for the tail end of the film. But you need not see it to guess how that movie ends. It plays out in real life too often.
Detroit begins with a history lesson about how the different race groups moved around after World War I and how they interacted – or didn’t – after World War II. The lesson is animated – sort of like Jay Z’s The Story of OJ video but without the gravitas.
That lesson actually serves to bring an unnecessary lightness to a film that immediately starts the real-life scenes with one mission: to show the viewer that this is a film about race.
There is an onslaught of graphic violence in the film and it’s so prolonged that that’s what starts to become the discomfort while sitting in the cinema. The denialism that Dismukes holds on to almost feels like the film-makers’ attempt to soften the injustices.
Which is strange because they initially put the viewer in a place where the point of view is that policemen shoot first and then ask questions later – if they feel like it.
Anyway, Detroit is a highly polarising film. You will either love it or hate it.