Detroit’s gut-wrenching reach
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