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.
Amidst the chaos of the Detroit Rebellion, with the city under curfew and as the Michigan National Guard patrolled the streets, three young African American men were murdered at the Algiers Motel.
There are few punches pulled in Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing retelling of the Detroit riots of 1967. That is, until a white cop unwittingly stumbles upon the beaten, bruised body of Larry Reed-lead singer of pop group “The Dramatics – and with an absolute lack of self-awareness declares, “who could have done this to you.” It’s a rare moment of meat-headed, idiocy defined awkwardly by a screaming sense of white guilt, as if writer Mark Boal and Bigelow felt it necessary to exclaim, “but it wasn’t all of us.” All tension developed dissipated in that moment and the film struggles to regain its momentum.
The first hour and a half leading up to this moment however stuns and shocks in equal measure. Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (reuniting for the first time since The Hurt Locker) bring with them a cinéma-vérité, handheld master class. The camera shakes wildly, framing is often messy and visually it feels flat on few occasions, but this messiness, as if chasing characters from one room to another plays up the claustrophobic panic of the films stunning centrepiece.
Before moving into something far broader, Detroit is set on the night of the 25th July 1967. 2 days prior, a police raid on an unlicensed party celebrating the return of black Vietnam vets kick of riots that will last five days and will ultimately take the lives of 47. On the night of the 25th, leader of The Dramatics Larry Reed (an extraordinary Algee Smith) and close friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimer) attempt to avoid the ever-growing panic by heading to the Algiers Motel.
Running parallel, Dismukes (John Boyega) guards a grocery store from looters, trying to appease the cops much to the dismay of passing residents whilst trigger happy cop Krauss (Will Poulter), Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole) stalk the streets.
At the Algiers, Larry and Fred meet the visiting Juli and Karen (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Denver), the only white residents of the motel. There they come into contact with Carl Cooper (Jason Mitch), whose starter gun will ultimately lead to state troopers and cops descending upon the motel.
It’s never truly better than the hour or so self-contained within the Algiers. Will Poulter’s Krauss tortures the guests with a queasy sense of self-righteous joy whilst Reynor’s Demens struggles with a mortality compass that swerves wildly. Bigelow manages to shift the film into a region more in common with home invasion horrors in these moments.
Performances universally impress. Poulter-surely on his way to a Best Supporting Actor nomination-brings a real nastiness to a role defined by turgid racism and Boyega brings with him a quiet disgust shown only through a sad hushed silence. But it’s on the shoulders of Algee Smith to bear the burden of the plot. His shining optimism is scuffed and rusted, his dreams of pop stardom a sad reminder of white domination. It’s a direful, mournful arc that Smith handles brilliantly.
There is a sad urgency to Detroit and its release too is sadly timely. 50 years on, it still feels shockingly relevant. A vital, tough watch.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★