Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, Jack Reynor, Hannah Murray, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben O’Toole, Joseph David Jones, Ephraim Sykes, Leon Thomas III, Nathan Davis Jr., Peyton Alex Smith, Malcolm David Kelley, Gbenga Akinnabve, Chris Chalk, Jeremy Strong, Laz Alonzo, Austin Hebert, Miguel Pimentel, Kris Davis, and John Krasinski.
The Detroit Rebellion takes place during the summer of 1967. While the city is under curfew and the National Guard on the streets, the police raid the Algiers Motel. Three young black men are murdered and nine more people – seven black men and two white women – are brutally beaten.
When Kathryn Bigelow directs a movie, you know what you’re in for. In a very good way. A film that challenges preconceived ideas, one that doesn’t pull any punches and hits you fair and square between the eyes, one that’s meticulously researched and, in the case of Detroit, is seriously conscious of its debt to the real people portrayed on the screen. But if anything sums up her latest offering, it’s that it’s an uncomfortable watch and for all the right reasons. But, then, Bigelow is at her most comfortable when she’s making us feel like that.
After the battle fields of Afghanistan (Zero Dark Thirty) and Iraq (The Hurt Locker), she now takes us to another conflict. Detroit in 1967. In what was supposed to be the summer of love, the riots that broke out in the motor city resulted in over 40 dead, 1,200 injured, 7,000 arrested and 2,000 buildings burnt. At the height of the riots, the police raided the Algiers Motel searching for a sniper but, unable to track him down, they turned on the guests, who were subjected to horrific attacks at the hands of the uniformed officers.
That’s putting it dispassionately, which reflects the early tone of Bigelow’s film. Her docudrama makes extensive use of newsreel footage of the day and it’s filmed in a very unfussy, uncluttered style. But it’s also one that takes us right to the heart of the action time and time again, showing the events through the eyes of the people involved, rather than the bigger picture. And that’s the reason why the scenes inside the Algiers Motel are so intense. Almost unbearably so.
At the outset, it’s unclear which characters are going to be the ones at the centre of the film: they simply emerge from the shadows, allowing you time to absorb the context of what’s about to happen. In truth, there are a number of them, all with their individual stories interweaving and running in parallel, which is one of the reasons the film has a running time of almost two and a half hours. Which points to the film’s main weakness. By the time the final section of the film arrives, you’ve been on such a harrowing and shocking journey that you’ve little left to give. The same applies to this part of the film, which would have lost none of its impact by being more crisply edited. That said, it is Detroit’s only failing.
So, you have the racist cop, Krauss (Will Poulter, really coming of age as an actor): security guard Dismukes (John Boyega): Vietnam vet Greene (Anthony Mackie) and all-male singing group The Dramatics. And Bigelow gets great performances out of her cast, as individuals and as an ensemble. Poulter, in particular, puts in a blistering turn, his boyish features disguising the vicious racist beneath the surface. It’s a bold piece of casting – he’s one of several Brits in the line-up – and Bigelow has played a blinder.
By the time you get to the end of Detroit, you’ll be reeling, slightly punch drunk even. It’s what happens when you’re thrown off kilter, outraged at what you’ve witnessed and unable to escape the depressing thought that recent events have, yet again, shown us that we never learn. And that’s all down to Bigelow’s skill as a director. Once again, she’s taken a difficult, complex subject and turned it into a challenging, searing piece of filmmaking. Don’t expect to feel comfortable. You won’t. And if you’re white, you may just feel ashamed of it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★