With serendipitous timing and real world resonance that borders on opportunistic, “Detroit” arrives in cinemas to emphasise the perilous nature of present day America and it’s far too recent shameful past.
Detroit, 1967. The city is in the grip of growing discontent which is spilling over into racially-charged rioting driven by large scale disaffection and an aggressively misjudged and deeply prejudiced policing approach. After an opening animated montage in the style of Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Great Migration’, the film abandons its eponymous city-wide focus and narrows on down to the handful of characters who will come to be involved in the film’s main focus: the Algiers Motel incident.
Bigelow’s trademark directorial style is something of a double-edged sword here. Her pseudo-documentary visual approach immerses you in events, making everything that unfolds feel tragically inevitable no matter how much you’re willing events not to unfold as they must inevitably do so. But in adopting such a detached, ‘just the facts’ approach there’s a degree of superficial reportage to proceedings and while objectively presenting the facts of the case as they were is at least more than was done at the time, there’s no attempt to provide a wider context or an experiential viewpoint.
The film draws its strengths from the performances, particularly those of Will Poulter, Algee Smith and John Boyega. Poulter plays dirty Detroit cop Philip Krauss, the prime instigator of the events which were to take place at the Algiers Motel and turns in a fiercely malevolent performance of a callously confident, institutional racist who believes himself to be above the spirit and justified in perverting the letter of the law. Smith’s role as gifted singer Larry Reed provides the audience with a principled, morally affronted and impotently furious surrogate, unable to forget and understandably unwilling to forgive while Boyega’s nobly neutral security guard (reminiscent of Denzel Washington in the power of his silences) provides the cautionary example that stoic cooperation is no protection from a corrupt and broken system.
Running the gamut from evil to cowardly, the representatives of the state, army and police throughout the film repeatedly demonstrate their culpability in the tragedy which unfolds either through direct vicious action or, all too often, in turning a blind eye and failing to intervene and prevent the atrocities.
While the film examines the Algiers Motel incident in excruciating, uncomfortable detail – reminiscent of but less visceral than “12 Years A Slave”, the monstrous injustice of the judicial failures which followed the incident are given only a cursory overview, an egregious omission for a film which should have – especially in the current socio-political climate – pressed home the insidious dangers of inherently racist institutions, a malignancy far more pervasive and damaging than the actions of a few murderous individuals. Devoid of the same level of attention being paid to the system which allowed the Algiers Motel incident to happen, there’s a distastefully voyeuristic aspect to the movie.
“Detroit” is still a potent and timely film, but fine performances aside, I’m not sure who this film is for. Those who lived through these times and still suffer at the hands of emboldened racists need no reminders of how far America has failed to come and the film’s willful emphasis on individuals over institutions blunts its warning for today.