Achieving considerable attention with her 1991 film Point break, Kathryn Bigelow has gone on to become the most renowned female director in modern cinema. After claiming both best picture and best director in 2008 for the immensely successful The Hurt Locker, there promised to be much more in store for the California-born filmmaker, and this was confirmed with 2012’s manhunt drama, Zero Dark Thirty. Now, Bigelow is back with one of the most important films of the year, tackling the 1967 Detroit rebellion.
A singular police raid on an unlicensed club led to one of the most explosive race riots in US history. With an historical event of such magnitude as this, there are many stories to tell. This tale of brutal injustice centres around the incident that took place at the Algiers Motel. Amidst the rioting, a group of African-American youths in a motel room are enjoying themselves and avoiding the devastation on the streets . As the fun escalates, an individual makes the foolish decision of firing a toy gun out the window to scare the police – what unfolds in a series of spiralling circumstances leads to the death of three young men. Innocent, and petrified.
The films exposition, after some useful historical context, details the police raid that started it all; the fire that erupted into a blazing abomination of discrimination. Hoards of African-American civilians are taken into police vans that look suspiciously like slick hearses, all shot through a frantic perspective that feels as though apart of the resilient crowds themselves. This opening scene perfectly captures the collective fury and alienation of the community. The white, rich families have all fled to the suburbs; jobs and opportunities are in decline, and the black community is left to experience the degradation that this sudden change has inflicted on the neighbourhood. With determination and dizzying camerawork, the cause for the rioting, the looting, and the anger is conveyed to the audience. The viewer is plunged into a world, or rather a history, in which intolerance and idiocy led to the destruction of lives – the mirage of civil rights has eroded, the community has lapsed into a nightmarish hell where innocents are shot in the street and children are mistakenly killed, all by the privileged authority.
We are introduced to police officer Krauss cruising the ruins of his territory, the power-hungry antagonist convincingly portrayed by Will Poulter. “It’s preventable, that’s the worst part”, he says as he spectates the aftermath of carnage surrounding his protected vehicle. One thing Bigelow superbly achieves with Detroit is introducing its characters wholeheartedly. Krauss is instantly recognisable as a racist, ill-informed young man on an unstoppable exercise of his own power. Additionally, one of the youths held hostage at the motel is apart of the musical outfit The Dramatics; just before the musical group take the stage, the eager crowds are evacuated. Taking the stage in the empty auditorium, lead singer Larry Reed sings the words “if you haven’t got love, you’re lonely’. His words are important, moving, and honest – yet, no one is listening, his poetry falls on deaf ears, and this is metaphorical of the journey that is endured over the course of the narrative.
The plot development in the first act does begin to feel rather drawn out, and it takes Bigelow a substantial amount of time to establish narrative context. However, once the story reaches a more contained location, in the shape of the Algiers Motel, the drama begins to naturally develop, for a fair amount of time, then the pacing issues commence once again. The second act contains most of the tension and great performances that the film has to offer, and then the third act is more committed in making sure the morals of the true story and the events that took place are taught to the audience. While this is still important, it diminishes and draws attention from the entertaining and riveting aspects of Bigelow’s directorial skills. As the aftermath of the incident is chronicled, Detroit begins to feel overstuffed and overlong. It may have worked better as an eight-part series, in which everything the director wanted to say and exhibit could be weighed and pondered over an episodic structure.
The crucial distinction between corrupt and honest law enforcement is tackled excellently, and the performances are impressive. John Boyega provides a compelling protagonist, from the trembling of his hands to the helpless guilt and desperation exhausting his fearful expressions. Sadly, there is just too much content to deal with and the structure begins to buckle under the ambitious treatment of the subject matter. Detroit is a relevant and powerful piece of work, but in the shadow of Bigelow’s recent output, simply does not conduct a magisterial control that has come to be expected.