A film about the 1967 riot re­vis­its night of po­lice-led ter­ror.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by James Robins

Detroit, Brigsby Bear, School Life, Let Me Go

DETROIT di­rected by Kathryn Bigelow

For five days in July 1967, Detroit be­came an in­ferno. A po­lice raid in a poor black com­mu­nity kicked off a spree of loot­ing and, in turn, a po­lice crack­down. The lo­cals re­fused to sur­ren­der or to ac­cede to the pleas of their con­gress­man to stop ­de­stroy­ing their own neigh­bour­hoods. “Burn it down!” they hollered back. A slum is no home, after all. The National Guard was called in, bay­o­nets fixed.

Kathryn Bigelow, who has di­rected two features about Amer­i­can con­flicts over­seas ( The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), imag­ines those burn­ing city blocks as if they were a bat­tle­field. She crams three days of ri­ot­ing into the open­ing act be­fore zoom­ing in on a hall­way at the Al­giers Mo­tel, and re­main­ing there as the ­con­fla­gra­tion rages in the streets out­side.

Most of the film’s 150-minute ­run­ning time is spent in the op­pres­sive con­fines of that hall­way: it be­comes a tor­ture ­cham­ber, and a mi­cro­cosm for the up­heavals of the 1960s, if not the ­coun­try’s en­tire, un­com­fort­able past.

What hap­pened that night at the Al­giers has been the sub­ject of much con­jec­ture and many the­o­ries, though no firm truths have ever emerged. What we do know is that a team com­posed of city and state po­lice and sol­diers raided the mo­tel, sus­pect­ing a sniper. By morn­ing, three African-Amer­i­can men were dead

from gun­shot wounds.

Bigelow and her reg­u­lar writer Mark Boal, re­ly­ing on reams of tes­ti­mony, imag­ine an evening of un­bend­ing hor­ror. Pre­sid­ing over a line-up of in­no­cent black men and white women are three white cops and National Guards­men led by Krauss (Will Poul­ter), whose cheru­bic face be­lies his sadism. “I’m just go­ing to as­sume you’re all crim­i­nals,” he jeers, “be­cause you prob­a­bly are.”

The cap­tives are treated to a nau­se­at­ing ar­ray of ­cru­el­ties and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Barry ­Ack­royd, shoot­ing with a hand­held cam­era, cap­tures ev­ery blow, ev­ery whim­per, ev­ery in­sult. At the pe­riph­ery is a black se­cu­rity guard (John Boyega, bril­liant yet sub­tle) torn be­tween ­com­pet­ing de­mands of racial loy­alty and the uni­form.

Those seem­ingly end­less scenes are barely watch­able not only in their own right, but also be­cause they carry the dark weight of the present tense. Any­one ­fa­mil­iar with the painful legacy of racist po­lice vi­o­lence in the US will in­stantly re­call other con­tem­po­rary names: ­Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri; Eric Garner; Tamir Rice.

By in­ter­cut­ting ar­chive footage and pho­to­graphs from the pe­riod, Bigelow in­vites us to con­sider Detroit as a his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment – a re-en­act­ment rather than a drama­ti­sa­tion.

A lan­guid post-Al­giers se­quence cov­ers the po­lice of­fi­cers’ trial (and in­evitable ac­quit­tal) and the trauma of a sur­vivor (Larry Reed, singer in R&B group The ­Dra­mat­ics, played by Al­gee Smith). This ­some­what cau­terises the im­pact of the film, but again shows us just how ­elu­sive true jus­tice can be.

Bigelow’s point is clear: the more things change, the more they stay the same.


Detroit: the city as


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