Having learned nothing from my Christopher Nolan curated binge-fest ahead of Dunkirk, which ultimately left me disappointed with his historical film earlier this year, I decided to watch as many of Kathryn Bigelow‘s films as I could before seeing her latest – Detroit.
From Point Break and K-19 The Widowmaker to The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty I was pretty entertained wth her claustrophobic style of directing intense action movies.
Detroit offers both intensity and a claustrophobic atmosphere, but the entertainment is in short supply, as a group of revellers are held captive by law enforcement officers in the Algiers Motel in Detroit in 1967 during a period of civil unrest.
Based on true events, Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal have crafted their own version of proceedings that led to a court case in the wake of several deaths in custody during the affair.
Where the film succeeds is in setting up a tinderbox of rage in a couple of key characters on both sides of the story, people who see it as their to duty to either inflame or extinguish other participants as they see fit.
Will Poulter plays Officer Krauss, a local police officer who as the film begins is in hot water for shooting a black man in the back as he ran from police, apparently in the act of looting.
Due to the emergency on the streets, manpower is in short supply and he is required to stay on duty, a poor and ultimately fateful (and fatal) decision that allows a toxic ingredient to seep into the community, further polluting the seething hotbed of racial disharmony that has been building in the city for years.
Bigelow starts the film with a series of artworks by Jacob Lawrence, who in 1941 at 23 years old, completed a series of 60 small tempera paintings with text captions about the Great Migration, the multi-decade mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North that started around 1915.
The paintings used by Bigelow outline the deep unrest that had been building for several generations, a division between rich and poor, white and black that continues through to contemporary times.
The core of the film centres around Krauss and a couple of fellow officers interrogating the motel-dwellers about shots that were allegedly fired at a group of National Guardsmen. As the interrogation drags on through the night, Krauss allows his hatred of blacks to influence the other members of his team with dreadful results.
While Krauss may be one of the film’s key villains, it is John Boyega, a young black security guard who bears witness to some of the atrocious behaviour, but struggles to intervene in any meaningful way, who also comes under scrutiny for not doing more.
Where the film falls short is in delivering any kind of resolution. As the case goes to trial and an inevitable verdict is handed down, the overwhelming sense of the audience is one of depressed failure that uniformed police brutality was and is still able to go unpunished.
Bigelow has said herself that perhaps this is not a story for a white person to tell, but as she is in the position of being able to tell it, she has. As to what outcome she was aiming for I’m not sure, and after seeing the film twice it is no clearer to me what her intention may have been other than to shine a spotlight on the ongoing problem of race relations.
Essential viewing in many ways, but not something you could confidently recommend to somebody to go and see due to the deep discomfort of the way the subject mater is handled.
I’m still struggling with it, and maybe that was her intention.
3 Stars – “Heavy.”