We live in trying times. I am aware that I am in a privileged position as a white middle-class hetero-sis male so I might not struggle as persecuted people struggle, but I can try to help and fight along side them. It is always a shame to see atrocities committed by those in authority against those people who have no power at all, whether that be people of a different ethnicity, sexuality or those of a different gender. It sometimes makes me wonder whether we do indeed live in the 21st century. A movie that has recently affirmed that depressing thought is a film set in the past, yet one that felt frighteningly relevant, that film is Katherine Bigalow’s Detroit.
Set in 1967 Detroit during mass civil unrest and riots in black neighbourhoods, tensions are high as the government send in the national guard to assist local police to quell the violence. However, in a motel called The Algiers, of which most of the residents are black, some guests are goofing around, and one shoots a starting pistol at the national guard, leading to a police raid of the hotel with the national guard and a security guard from a local grocery store. As the police try to figure out what happened, they start to use more and more forceful tactics and this leads to a night that anyone involved in will never forget.
The film is based on historical events, as described by eye witnesses and in primary sources. Katherine Bigalow and writing partner, ex-journalist Mark Boal, while they state that it is not an exact recreation of events, do a great job conveying the sense of tension and terror within the main event that they are focusing on, that is the brutality in the motel. The events depicted in this film are without a doubt some of the scariest of the year because it feels so relevant and also because Bigalow presents it as part of a horror film. There are elements of other home invasion stories within this film, as the police play more and more sadistic games and we get glimpses into their warped psychology. We also see the corrupt system that the characters are fighting against and it is completely infuriating and sickening every time that it wins.
The filmmakers lend a viscerality to the awful events thanks to the documentary style cinematography. This is meshed with stock and news footage from the period to add a sense of validity to the proceedings. To help increase the tension all the more are some great characters. They all feel like real people, with hopes and fears, being more complex than cut and dry good people and bad racists.
However, these characters would have just been words on a page if it weren’t for the career best performances from all the actors. John Boyega is simply spellbinding as Melvin Dismukes, the security guard, despite doing very little, thanks to subtle facial changes. His quiet concern and need to act as peace keeper is perhaps our best audience surrogate and we truly feel for the guy as the situation slowly gets too much for anyone, especially someone as level headed as Dismukes, to handle. Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore do wonderful work as a couple of young kids being terrorised by the cops, their fear is contagious and I had to hide my head in my jumper in a couple of moments, peeping out only occasionally and wishing that they would get out alright, but when inevitable tragedy strikes it is heart-breaking. On the other side Will Poulter, as the lead cop Krauss will go down as one of the great horror villains of all time. He is both a snarling lunatic and scarily justified in his actions. Poulter presents us with a person with a twisted sense of civic responsibility and it is truly horrifying and spellbinding. He is also backed up by Ben O’Toole from Hacksaw Ridge as another rabid police officer, frothing at the mouth and similarly as monstrous.
However, I do have a little quibble. The film felt a little flabby at the end of the absolutely gripping central hook in the hotel. I mean the build up is fine, it is setting the scene and providing a context in which the police brutality and the lack of justice is placed, but, the section after the trial I found to be completely pointless. It seemed to belong to another film entirely. It actually let the message of the film down, I think, by allowing audiences time to cool rather than being left with anger and a lack of resolution. There were also some elements of the film that weren’t made clear enough, although that might have been just me not connecting the dots, but a couple of parts of the film did leave me scratching my heads.
Despite this, however, Detroit is still a must watch for everyone. It is one of the scariest films I have seen in cinemas and it has some absolutely knock out performances that will haunt me and those who played them probably for the rest of their lives. I am sure that when award season rolls around that it will be featured heavily for good reason.
You can watch Detroit in cinemas now