Detroit’s gut-wrench­ing reach

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Kathryn Bigelow’s dis­turb­ing film Detroit opened in the US on July 21, al­most ex­actly 50 years af­ter the events it de­picts un­folded across some hot sum­mer nights in 1967. It’s a story of shock­ing po­lice racism, bru­tal­ity and un­law­ful killings, crimes that, at the time, were white­washed (the word is ap­pro­pri­ate) when the po­lice in­volved were ac­quit­ted; and the re­ver­ber­a­tions are, the film strongly sug­gests, still be­ing felt to­day in the in­ci­dences of po­lice shoot­ings of African-Amer­i­cans.

It’s a gut-wrench­ing story and, af­ter The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, direc­tor Bigelow and her reg­u­lar screen­writer Mark Boal seem ex­actly the right cre­ative tal­ents to tell it. For the most part, they suc­ceed.

The film is di­vided into three sec­tions. The first, fol­low­ing a brief over­view of AfricanAmer­i­can mi­gra­tion to the north­ern fac­tory cities, shows how it all be­gan. Detroit’s white cops over­re­acted to a noisy cel­e­bra­tory party in which blacks wel­comed home one of their own who fought in Viet­nam. The crack­down leads to name-call­ing, then to ri­ot­ing and even­tu­ally to burn­ing and loot­ing. The Na­tional Guard is called in.

In sec­tion two The Dra­mat­ics, an all-male singing group, is about to per­form at a lo­cal the­atre when the show is can­celled. Lead singer Larry Reed (Al­gee Smith) and his friend Fred (Ja­cob La­ti­more) are try­ing to avoid the vi­o­lence and get home, but the bus on which they’re trav­el­ling is stopped. They seek refuge in the seedy Al­giers Mo­tel, where they meet some other African-Amer­i­cans who are ac­com­pa­nied by Julie Ann (Han­nah Mur­ray) and Karen (Kait­lyn Dever), a cou­ple of white girls vis­it­ing from Ohio. One of the group, Carl (Ja­son Mitchell) stupidly fires off a start­ing pis­tol loaded with blanks, and that act of fool­ish­ness re­sults in a po­lice raid on the mo­tel.

The cop in charge is Krauss (Will Poul­ter), an un­apolo­getic racist who has al­ready shot a looter in the back dur­ing the ri­ots. What fol­lows is a nail­bit­ing 45-minute se­quence in which Krauss, a cou­ple of other cops and a Na­tional Guards­man beat and ter­rify the group, in­clud­ing the girls — who are de­spised for be­ing with blacks. In the end, three African-Amer­i­cans are shot dead.

The third, and least suc­cess­ful, sec­tion of the film deals rather su­per­fi­cially with the af­ter­math of these events.

The first sec­tion is char­ac­terised by the direc­tor’s choice of Barry Ack­royd as cin­e­matog­ra­pher. Ack­royd is cel­e­brated for his hand­held, pseudo-doc­u­men­tary ap­proach and it’s in­ter­est­ing to note that when we see ac­tual news­reel footage shot at the time it’s much more co­her­ent and fo­cused than Ack­royd’s messy ap­proach. For­tu­nately, the cam­er­a­work im­proves in the cru­cial seg­ment in the mo­tel.

One of the key char­ac­ters here is a black se­cu­rity guard, Melvin Dis­mukes (John Boyega), who is present for most of the time, tol­er­ated by Krauss and the other cops be­cause he’s in uni­form and armed, but nev­er­the­less clearly deeply troubled by what he’s forced to wit­ness.

The mo­tel se­quence is so sus­pense­ful that it’s a shame that what fol­lows is so per­func­tory. It would surely have made com­pelling view­ing to ex­plore in more de­tail what hap­pened to the char­ac­ters in the af­ter­math of these events, events in which, we must re­mem­ber, the char­ac­ters rep­re­sented in the film by Krauss and the other white cops, were ac­quit­ted of mur­der and as­sault. But that would have made an al­ready lengthy film even longer.

As it is, Bigelow’s an­gry, trou­bling film is a re­minder that racism is never very far be­neath the sur­face in a so­ci­ety where guns are so read­ily avail­able — a toxic com­bi­na­tion.

In­ci­den­tally, the events de­picted in the film un­folded al­most ex­actly a month af­ter the re­lease of In the Heat of the Night, a movie in which a black cop (Sid­ney Poitier) runs rings around a big­oted south­ern cop (Rod Steiger) in solv­ing a mur­der case. The film would still have been play­ing in Detroit when the ri­ots took place. Agatha Christie’s trick­i­est mur­der mys­tery, Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press, first pub­lished in 1934, is brought to the screen for the sec­ond time in a very hand­some pro­duc­tion di­rected by Ken­neth Branagh, who also plays mas­ter de­tec­tive Her­cule Poirot and boasts the most spec- Detroit; Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press tac­u­lar mous­tache in screen his­tory. In 1974, Sid­ney Lumet filmed the page-turner with Al­bert Fin­ney as Poirot (boast­ing much less spec­tac­u­lar fa­cial hair) and a stel­lar cast that in­cluded Sean Con­nery, In­grid Bergman, Vanessa Red­grave and John Giel­gud among the sus­pects in the mur­der of ob­nox­ious Amer­i­can Richard Wid­mark. Branagh’s ver­sion is shorter, by nearly 20 min­utes, but not no­tice­ably bet­ter.

The chal­lenge lies in the ma­te­rial it­self; a man no­body likes (played in this ver­sion by Johnny Depp) is stabbed to death on the Ori­ent Ex­press as it trav­els through the moun­tains of (pre­sum­ably) Yu­goslavia. Al­most im­me­di­ately an avalanche blocks the train’s progress, and en­sures that only the peo­ple trav­el­ling first class in the same car­riage as the mur­dered man can be con­sid­ered as pos­si­ble sus­pects — and it’s un­for­tu­nate for them that the great Bel­gian in­ves­ti­ga­tor is also on board.

By its very na­ture, then, the drama un­folds in con­fined spaces — and Branagh and his cin­e­matog­ra­pher, Haris Zam­bar­loukos (shoot­ing on 65mm film) strive might­ily to pro­vide some vis­ual va­ri­ety. Key se­quences are rather dis­tract­ingly filmed from over­head and there are a great num­ber of very busy track­ing shots that fol­low the ex­te­rior of the train, as well as nu­mer­ous cam­era set-ups that shoot through dis­tort­ing glass.

In an­other at­tempt to open out the ma­te­rial, Branagh’s amaz­ingly ro­bust Poirot be­comes in­volved in some out­door phys­i­cal ac­tion with one of the sus­pects.

Depp, scarred and brood­ing, makes an im­pres­sion in his few scenes, even seiz­ing the op­por­tu­nity to make a joke about an un­wel­come ca­nine. The sus­pects in­clude, most no­tably, Judi Dench as a Rus­sian grande dame, Willem Dafoe as an Aus­trian pro­fes­sor (or is he?), Pene­lope Cruz as a re­li­gious fa­natic, Derek Ja­cobi as the dead man’s valet and — in a ma­jor switch from the orig­i­nal — black ac­tor Les­lie Odom Jr as Dr Ar­buth­not, a char­ac­ter who was orig­i­nally an army of­fi­cer and was played by Sean Con­nery in the Lumet film.

Ev­ery mem­ber of the en­sem­ble cast is as good as you’d ex­pect them to be, but it’s Branagh front and cen­tre, ex­pound­ing his philoso­phies (“There is right and there is wrong — noth­ing in be­tween”) and mak­ing sense of the nu­mer­ous clues that have been scat­tered around the mur­der scene.

Lumet’s film was a ma­jor box-of­fice suc­cess, and won an Os­car for Bergman, so per­haps it’s not so sur­pris­ing that, at the end of Branagh’s movie, there’s a strong sug­ges­tion he’ll be back with a new ver­sion of Death on the Nile.

He has made a cred­itable, but by no means out­stand­ing, crack at film­ing a much-loved but ex­tremely old-fash­ioned mur­der mys­tery.

BIGELOW’S AN­GRY, TROU­BLING FILM IS A RE­MINDER THAT RACISM IS NEVER VERY FAR BE­NEATH THE SUR­FACE

Will Poul­ter as Krauss, main pic­ture, and An­thony Mackie as Greene, in­set, in Daisy Ri­d­ley, bot­tom left, and Michelle Pfeif­fer, bot­tom right, in

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