Right now in America, race relations are at their lowest point for the past few years. With constant stories of black people being killed by the police and the killers getting no punishment, along with the alt-right regime of Donald Trump, there’s a sense of increased justified outrage amongst the black community, which I can gleam as a white Brit. In this time, a film about the Detroit riots feels inevitable, with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, who worked together on The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, bringing the same style they brought to those films into their film about the Detroit Riots. However, as solid a creative team as they are, as white people their experiences about the riots would be limited and more focused towards exposing the events to a white audience, so there was the concern that the film would be more surface level. However, I personally feel that Bigelow and Boal do a great job at capturing the experience of the moment and the injustice of what followed.
The plot of the film, after a brief explanation of the start of the Detroit Riots, focuses on the Algiers Motel Incident, where police raided the motel after believing a sniper fired at them from it, when the only gun in the building was a starter pistol. Over the course of the film, the actions of the police get more and more brutal, with other law enforcement agencies leaving the scene to avoid any repercussions, with the event resulting in the deaths of several black men in the building. Now what Kathryn Bigelow wants to do in the film is put you in the mindset of the people in the Algiers Motel, showing the tension that was building up in the building throughout the night, with the tension building up creating a powerful experience when watching the film as, especially as someone who didn’t know anything about the Algiers Motel Incident, you’re in constant dread over what the police are going to do next. The actions of police are absolutely disgusting throughout the film, racist and violent to the black men and leery towards the two white women in the motel, with the women being called, for lack of a better term, race traitors and prostitutes for wanting to be with black men. Even after the events of the motel, the racism of the police was still in full force with the actions they took against security guard Melvin Dismukes. Now as a white man I cannot fully talk about the race aspect of the film, I don’t know about the experience myself and I would completely understand why some members of the audience would be angry with this film for focusing more on a white perspective for the most part, with there only being two black point of view characters in the film that are given substantial screentime in a film about the Detroit riots, but I found it to be an effective look at the events of the Detroit Riots, with it not falling into a ‘both sides were wrong’ mentality. The film presents the outrage amongst the black population as justified whilst the white police and National Guard as being too trigger happy, with the constantly espoused threat of snipers never being seen on screen.
The performances meanwhile do a great job at capturing the feel of what happened in the Algiers Motel. Algee Smith as Larry Reed does a great job at showing the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ nature of the character and his fear over what happened at the Motel, with the best elements of the performance coming in at the end with the guilt and anger he feels over what happened and how the police were treated afterwards. Will Poulter meanwhile gives a brilliantly vile performance as the main police officer Philip Krauss (whose name was changed from the real event, most likely for legal reasons), showing a trigger happy nature, the racism of the character and a very creepy nature effectively. John Boyega is solid as security guard Melvin Dismukes, with the character changing from someone who wants to help the police and National Guard to avoid any violence to someone faced with the injustice of the police head on. Alongside Smith, Anthony Mackie, Jacob Latimore, Nathan Davis Jr and Jason Mitchell do great work showing the fear they face in the situation and the injustice they face from the police, whilst Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever do great work showing their fear, along with their attraction to black men and highlight the creepy nature of the police with how the police leer at them throughout the film. Meanwhile, Jack Reynor and Ben O’Toole do great work as the other police officers, showing their inexperience, stupidity and racism effectively, letting you understand how the events in the Algiers Motel got so out of hand.
On a technical level, Kathryn Bigelow continues to show her skills as a director here. The matter of fact way in which Bigelow and DP Barry Ackroyd shoot the film gives the film a sense of grit that is needed for the events of the film. Bigelow doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the actions of the police. The production design meanwhile does a good job of replicating the feel of 1960’s Detroit, with the recreation of the Algiers Motel being of note, especially compared to the photos of the Motel we see at the end of the film. The music meanwhile does a good job of setting the tone, along with informing the character change in Larry Reed due to his role in the start of the film as a singer for The Dramatics.
Overall, whilst I cannot say whether or not Detroit feels respectful as a white man from the UK as I don’t have the full knowledge about race relations in the US or the experience of the black population, I found Detroit to be an effective white knuckle thriller that uses the known events of the Algiers Motel Incident to create one of the best thrillers of the year. Bigelow’s direction and Boal’s writing are solid throughout, creating a powerful look at the events of that night and the injustice that followed.
My Rating: 5/5