It’s a depressing state of affairs that Kathryn Bigelow’s latest movie, Detroit – an adaptation of the Algiers Motel incident in which three young black men were beaten and killed by police – seems strangely timely.
Recent news from the USA has seen Black Lives Matter activists take to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism towards African Americans; white supremacists have marched in opposition of the removal of a Confederate war statue, while the President himself has arguably stoked the fires of intolerance and, amazingly, only fleetingly condemned the actions of neo-Nazis.
It’s into the tinder box of emotion and civil strife that Detroit finds itself being flung with an unpleasantly poetic sense of symmetry.
In Detroit in 1967, the city police carried out a raid on an unlicensed after-hours drinking den that was hosting a welcome home party for black soldiers returning from Vietnam. A somewhat bungled operation saw dozens of peaceful party-goers unceremoniously piled into vans by heavy-handed cops in full view of an angry neighbourhood. The operation stirred up trouble in a town that had been, as this movie’s prologue highlights, simmering with racial tension for years. Pockets of disturbance snowballed into widespread civil unrest and within days the city turned into something approaching a war zone as state police and National Guardsmen were deployed to restore order.
The truth surrounding the events at the Algiers Motel are, perhaps not surprisingly, still somewhat shrouded in mystery and falsehoods. A definitive version of events has still to be settled on, owing to the competing stories of witnesses and police officers at the scene. What’s not up for debate is the fact that, on the 25th July, a combined force of city and state police along with National Guardsmen entered the motel following reports of gunfire. When they left, three young men were dead.
Three policemen and a security guard were charged with a variety of offences including conspiracy and murder, but all were found not guilty, with the deaths attributed to “justifiable homicide”. The testimonies of witnesses at the motel, collected in John Hersey’s book The Algiers Motel incident and used as inspiration the movie, state that the responding police officers tortured and brutalised the ten black men and two white women in the motel, eventually murdering three of the men. The incident continues to provoke intense debate to this day and is regarded as a watershed moment in recent American history.
Bigelow’s movie pulls absolutely no punches in its depiction of police brutality and flagrant, explicit racism. It’s a movie that absolutely takes it as a given than atrocities were committed by men in positions of power and that institutionalised racism was a feature of life in 60’s Detroit and visible within the city’s police force.
Its first 90 minutes or so play out at a slow and steady pace as instances of violence begin to grow and culminate with a ferocious central scene in which all hell breaks loose within the motel. The middle section, as the police, led by a hypnotic and terrifyingly sadistic Will Poulter, debase and threaten the motel’s guests, is likely to be what Detroit is most remembered for. It’s a prolonged and teased-out moment of excruciating horror that plays out like a home invasion movie, bringing to mind genre pieces such as Straw Dogs, Funny Games or even Wes Craven’s landmark The Last House on the Left.
The depiction of grim violence is relentless and is, I think, some of the most excruciating violence in any supposedly mainstream movie. It has been called gratuitous in some reviews but I’m minded to think that any movie that is going to depict racially-motivated torture and murder is correct in not pulling any punches.
It is because Detroit’s first ninety-odd minutes are so breathtaking and grueling that, when the film ticks into its final third and settles into a more conventional courtroom drama setting, it begins to feel somewhat flat. A slimmer movie that omitted the fallout may have felt like it missed touching on the point of racism and violence inherent in a crooked system, but it might also have felt like more of gut-punch statement.
An intense and distressing watch, Detroit shows that Bigelow has lost none of her touch in transporting visceral drama to the screen. It’s perhaps a touch dispiriting to turn on the contemporary news and wonder if some of the lessons have not been learned.
Dir: Kathryn Bigelow
Scr: Mark Boal
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie
Prd: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Matthew Budman, Megan Ellison, Colin Wilson
DOP: Barry Ackroyd
Music: James Newton Howard
Runtime: 143 minutes
Detroit is out in cinemas now.