Detroit review – tough, yes, but timely, biting and very very important
There is no director quite like Kathryn Bigelow. A historical figure for feminism and filmmaking, she won the Oscar for best director and became the first woman to do so. Over her career she has made a name for herself, working within film genres those that many would consider to be reserved for male directors. Be it thrillers, action films, horror, war dramas or now this historical drama, there seems to be nothing she can’t do, and along with her third time collaborator Mark Boal on screenwriter duties, this sets look to be another Oscar hoover.
The plot itself takes one incident as a microcosm and prime example of what the Detroit riots meant for the the police and for the African American community at large. To begin with we’re shown a brilliant little animated history lesson that tells us something that many of us already know, but bears repeating so that context to why the racial tensions are building so drastically. It’s not that people of different races can’t live together, quite the opposite, what Bigelow is saying is that they can’t live segregated, put into their own little areas and left there. They have to have free reign, to just do as they please.
In a very sprawling sense Bigelow takes time to introduce the various characters and what they’re thoughts and dreams are, taking care not to make any one person the hero, nor any one person the villain. Cleverly her and Boal have crafted a story that allows us to do most of the tension building through our own assumptions.
The cast on the whole are brilliant, with John Boyega as a proper leading man who has something of the easy every-man charm of a young Denzel Washington. He plays his role of Melvin Dismukes, a blue collar guy working in a steel mill and night shifts doing security during the riots with easy charm, someone who gets that the police are an institution that hate his race but doesn’t want to fight against them.
Alongside him is Algee Smith as Larry Reed, singer for the The Dramatics, that just by sheer unfortunate turn of events finds himself front and centre of this horrific situation. It’s a truly ensemble cast, with the work by Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor and even bigger names like Anthony Mackie and John Krasinski doing their parts justice.
The misstep, and it is minor, with regards to casting is Will Poulter. He’s not bad in his role as ruthless copper Krauss; he’s very good, commanding, sinister, unlikeable from the off, but Poulter has already become someone to go for for that role. Perhaps it’s his eyebrows, or just his look, but like Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe et al he’s someone who you immediately distrust on screen, and to put him in the role as the “bad” cop who has no qualms about playing a death game is a problem, because even in his introduction you don’t believe his sympathetic origins.
That said, Bigelow very quickly establishes the ground rules for her film, she’s talking about then and now, that things haven’t changed, and prejudice is going strong. With Paul Greengrass DP Barry Ackroyd filming, the whole thing feels like a cross between found footage and docu-drama, and actually in it’s more brutal moments, this feels like a war film rather than anything else.
Bieglow and co make it clear that this was a murky time, and that neither party were guiltless nor entirely to blame, she blames the society at large for the growing tension but makes her line of argument clear: the rioting and looting was unacceptable, but the police were infamous for their brutality long before the first window was smashed.
The irony of the film feeling like a war film and the hotel being called Algiers won’t be lost on everyone, and while the mid hour set almost entirely within the hotel is stomach turning in it’s tension, it makes it’s points well. Even before the police and Boyega show up on the scene the tension has been cranked up to breaking point. Jason Mitchell’s Carl Cooper is a character more in the mould of Begbie or Combo from British films Transpotting or This is England in the way he builds tension through conversations, and then explodes with jovial aggression, and the introduction of two white women at this hotel filled with black men sets tensions immediately. In fact, the moment a cop bursts through the door to find both ladies with Greene (played by Anthony Mackie), the audience is already certain he’s in for a rough time.
At over two hours the film is a long one, and the mid section becomes unbearable as things go from bad, to worse, to painful, and it may prove too intense for some. Don’t be ashamed to leave the screening for a moment or two, as it is a painfully tense hour. But even when the film allows the boiled kettle to simmer into a court room drama (really both films are interesting, and a whole film just about the court case would have made for a thrilling ride also) there’s still a sense of growing pain.
There are moments of beauty in the film, too. Bigelow is too talented a director not to shoot scenes that are incredibly moving, and the scene in which Smith sings to an empty theatre is very powerful, as is the final shot. But the film does allow for moments of relief and reassurance: the good white police officer helping Smith and calling his “brother”, and the homocide detective calling Poulter a “racist” are examples of moments of hope.
Even so, the film is a tough one, like 12 Years a Slave or Schindler’s List it’s not something you’ll be able to watch time and time again in quick succession like a popcorn thriller; it’s Bigelow’s hardest watch yet. Like those films, music plays a key role in the film’s power; there’s not a lot of non-diegetic music in the film, as most comes across on the radios, record players or singing and it all seems thoroughly well researched and of that era. A film concerned with Black culture, which exists and in many ways was really created in the streets of America – at least as we know it today – manages to fill even conversations about music with broiling racial tension like a discussion about selling records so white people can dance or the cringe-inducing proclamation by Hannah Murray’s Julie Ann “I love motown”; it shouldn’t be awkward but it’s that form of culture grabbing that would be good, if it wasn’t the backbone of America.
It’s unlikely, given the climate, that this film will go under the radar, and how great that yet another brilliant movie handles the culture of African Americans (see Get Out, Moonlight, Fences, Hidden Figures) with sensitivity and reverence and how great that another woman director is making big budget movies that have something to say. Awards are probably bound for this film across the board, or at least nominations, and if there’s any justice we might just see Bigelow in the running for another gong next to Jordan Peele, if there’s any justice.
Tough, yes, but timely, biting and very very important.