Here we have a film, based on an extraordinary event in history, featuring sweat-inducing scenes of tension, bullet sound effects that burst eardrums, and a large cast that often aren’t even named. Oh, it’s also topical as well. I could be talking about Detroit, or I could well be talking about Dunkirk. The former comes at a time where racial tensions in America are high. The latter came at a time when all Britain’s going through Brexit. However, in my humble opinion, Detroit succeeds a lot more in the tension stakes than Dunkirk. I found myself bored by huge chunks of Dunkirk. For the second act of Detroit I squirmed in my seat for almost an hour. It maybe let down by a tonally jarring and dull third act, but essentially it’s a true horror story that makes you want to look away from the screen…but you can’t stop yourself from looking.
Detroit looks at the events of the summer of 1967 in the city, where a police raid on a speakeasy led to civil unrest, looting and death. More specifically, Detroit focuses on one night in the Algiers Motel, where police search for an alleged sniper and torture the African-American residents. At the beginning, paintings tell us about the ‘Great Migration’ of African-Americans from the rural south to the industrial North. It caused the creation of urban ghettoes where African-Americans were left to their own devices. Change, according to the description, was inevitable. Change erupts in the form of a war zone in an American city.
Kathryn Bigelow uses a handheld approach to filming, so we feel as if we are an independent observer looking over people’s shoulders, or looking through windows as African-Americans loot shops and police treat any African-American with brutality. Bigeolow intercuts real newsreel footage with her own footage, to create an illusion of reality. It works, as well. I found myself sometimes believing I was watching a documentary. The first act is a slow build, revealing the characters and the situation to us. We see burned out buildings, the National Guard patrolling the streets, and innocent African-Americans fearful for their lives. “It’s like f**kin’ ‘Nam,” the villain of the piece, police officer Philip Krauss, comments. But the slow build reaps its rewards when the second act kicks in.
“Burn it down”
A man fires a toy gun at the police from the window of the Algiers Motel. This causes the police and the National Guard to surround the building, invade and psychologically terrorise the residents. What follows is the most visceral horror movie I’ve seen this year. You don’t need ghosts, paranormal activity or demons to create horror. All you need is a psychotic cop with a moral belief that he’s helping African-Americans and other police aiding and abetting him. The cops play a “death game” with the African-Americans, where they pretend to shoot someone in order to get information out of the others. There are two white women involved, who were found in the same room as one African-American (Anthony Mackie, playing a Vietnam veteran). They are treated the same as the African-Americans. The cops are disgusted with them for possibly fornicating with the “wrong people.” “What’s wrong with us?” one cop asks them. Will Poulter’s turn as Krauss is the embodiment of malevolence, his genuine belief that he’s helping “these people” by harming them shown in every movement, every gesture.
It plays out in real time, and lasts for about an hour. And there’s not one second where you won’t want to look away from the screen in disgust, but you just have to keep watching. It’s reminiscent of 12 Years A Slave, in the way that there were some scenes that were horrific to watch. What’s all the more horrific is that it actually happened. Detroit’s relative closeness should make us think twice about how far we’ve come. This hour scream at you to look around and ask how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same. This hour screams at you to grip the chair and wonder why it was allowed to happen. Sometimes, you have to witness something horrific to make changes in the world around you.
“How long do you think this is going to last?”
And the USA may have changed for the better since then, but there’s a long way to go. Although that hour displays racism at its worst, Detroit shows casual racism at all levels of society. Whether it’s a sneer, a disgusted glance at the white women mixing with African-Americans, or ignorance, Detroit proves that racism doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, but used to be acceptable. That’s what we should be most afraid of, and that’s the America that Trump seems to desire.
However, it’s the final act that scuppers any chance of Detroit being a truly great film. It’s a complete change in tone that sucks out all of the meticulously built tension of the second act. We turn to a courtroom drama and change from a handheld camera to a more casual one. Yes, it’s easy to feel disgust and anger at how the African-American witnesses are treated (and the fact that it’s a white-only jury), but it’s slow and plodding. Yes, I understand the necessity of it, but couldn’t we have had a shorter epilogue and the typical “what happened next” postscript that we see in historical films.
As a whole, Detroit is a cautionary tale that demands to be seen. From the slow build first act, to the second act that’s the best horror film this year, it’s a brutal and unbelievable story that’s based on real life. Even though the third act derails the tension and slows things down, it still manages to encourage disgust and anger in the viewer. It reminded me of Straight Outta Compton. The middle as ridden with tension, but after that, the focus on the divisons of the NWA made for less intensive viewing. But both are still compulsory viewing in light of recent events in America. Things may have changed since the 1960s, but racism is still prevalent in the USA (and around the world). Detroit shows us the extremes of racism.
VERDICT: 8/10. Barring a slow third act, Detroit is brutal, uncompromising viewing. At essence, it’s a horror story about racism. The second act will remain with you for a long time. Necessary, compulsory viewing.
What did you think of Detroit (2017)? Leave your comments below!
It’s hard to watch. But also quite compelling. Nice review.
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Thank you! I enjoy a film that’s hard to watch, that pushes you to the brink. That middle section almost pushed me over the brink
Great review, but I’m not as enthusiastic. I’ve given it 3 out of 5 stars because I believe it exploits the wave of racial disorder that swept US in the 60s to present a prolonged ‘bad-apple’ account of one psychotic cop. The cartoons at the beginning summarising the history of slavery and racism defies belief; what a way to trivialise the film’s context. Its a gripping drama but poor history.
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I can see where you are coming on. The cartoon part wasn’t necessary at all. The courtroom drama at the end was boring. However, the second act was one of the most tense hours I’ve spent in the cinema
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