Ostensibly a film revolving around villains vs. victims – as some critics have lamentably suggested -, Kathryn Bingelow’s Detroit is so much more. This is a suffocating piece of cinema that provokes the viewer and is saturated with the deft nuance that won her an Oscar for The Hurt Locker in 2010.
43 dead, 1,200 injured, 7,000 arrested, 2,000 buildings scorched: the numbers are dizzying and the ruins shattering. To have attempted to capture such widespread devastation would have been a folly and undermining task – instead, Bingelow, aided by her perennial screenwriter/producer Mark Boal, depicted an incident that represented both the horror and the seeds of the 1967 Detroit riots.
Years of racial oppression is the fuel; a raid on a speakeasy the spark; the protests the flames; the brutality of the police the winds that whip the demonstrations into mass riots; or so the film suggests.
Amidst the ensuing violence, the perspective shifts to The Dramatics, a musical group looking for success. When their moment to impress in front of a packed-out theatre is snatched away from them because of “security risks”, namely the riots, Larry Reed (Algee Smith) refuses to go home without a performance. Punctuating a scene of silence, Reed enters the stage: the backdrop, a ghostly empty theatre, now evacuated. He sings the song that was meant to propel him, and his friends, into stardom; a goose bump-inducing rendition, but it seemed to hold more significance than simply a lost dream.
“a vehicle through which we can see the lack of empathy that continues to breed in contemporary America”
Emotion in one of its purest forms – song – released in front of a vacant audience. Unheard and unwatched, it bespoke the deaf nature of the current incumbent at the White House — who refused to unequivocally condemn the White Supremacists during the recent Charlottesville Riots and respond in a compassionate, neigh humane, manner to those who suffered at such evil. The suffering of Reed mirroring the suffering witnessed at Charlottesville; the lack of response of the theatre, intentionally or unintentionally, mirroring the lack of response from the White House. And though a song can rarely capture the true horrors of murder, it acts a vehicle through which we can see the lack of empathy that continues to breed in contemporary America.
A small scene with such meaning – one begins to understand the power of Detroit.
The film bottlenecks when a toy gun shot is mistaken for a sniper. The National Guard, State Police and Detroit Police all converge on the Algiers Hotel. Moments prior, it had appeared that this hotel was a haven of peace located in the storm of a war-zone; in a twist of cruel irony for those who sought to escape the brutality of the riots, it would become a site of barbarity.
The sheer brutality of the policemen who are in pursuit of the ‘sniper’ is, at times, unbearable. Will Poulter’s cop Krauss, inspired by a loathing for non-whites, leads the ‘Death Game’: rounding up the guests of the hotel, seeking to beat, terrorise and psychologically torture them into submission. Such egregious moments are a sustained attack on the watcher’s senses.
“Poulter’s performance as Krauss is flawless, his air of malevolence exudes from the screen and shackles the audience”
Poulter’s performance as Krauss is flawless, his air of malevolence exudes from the screen and shackles the audience. From the Mephistophelean smirk to the callous, murderous gaze of Patrick Bateman, Poulter’s dictatorial air is spell-binding.
To describe even more would render going to the film obsolete, for this is a must-watch film, even if that cliché is as grating as it is over-used.
Bingelow has produced a film of sheer madness and that it attempts to reflect actual events is horrifying. Detroit is a terrifying prescient; this is not a depiction of what once was, but an endeavour to deliver a brutal truth. Racial tensions continue to escalate and fifty years on from one of the most abhorrent examples of police criminalisation it serves as warning to an America that is still infected with latent racism.