It is rare that a film makes you feel that you are part of the action, drawing you in as if it is going on around you rather than in front of you on the screen. Yet this summer we have had two such films in quick succession, first with Dunkirk and now with Detroit.
From the frenzied opening scenes of riot and disorder, shot with handheld cameras to capture the anger and energy, to the intensity of events at the Algiers Motel, shot from multiple angles that don’t miss a moment, you are never merely watching Detroit; you are constantly experiencing it first hand.
With two and a half hours of humanity at its worst, this is not an easy experience, but then neither should it be. If you don’t know the background to recent events in Charlottesville, or if you don’t understand the racial tensions and challenges that simmer just below, and often break through, the surface of American society, then this is a must-watch movie.
Using real events from the Detroit riots in July 1967, Kathryn Bigelow shows us just what it feels like to be considered a lesser human being merely because of the colour of your skin. She is quoted as saying that she didn’t set out to make ‘entertainment’ but the film is no less gripping for her mission to tell the truth.
Trump may have got into trouble recently for suggesting there were problems ‘on both sides’ in Charlottesville, but that doesn’t stop Bigelow from setting a balanced context for events here. From an animated intro explaining the Great Migration to the Northern cities, to the vivid violence of the black demonstrators, rioters and looters, which left 43 dead and 2,000 buildings burnt to the ground, this is no PC whitewash. Yet no amount of context can explain or excuse the events that follow.
The middle act, set in the cramped corridor of the Algiers, is sickeningly brutal and horrifying, and in many ways, the third act court scene is even more so. It’s easy to understand, though not forgive, the motivations of an under-pressure policeman whose colleagues have been shot at by rioters, but we expect more balance and fairness from the courts. If the blatant racist behaviour of the defence counsel and the verdict of the all-white jury don’t leave you feeling angry and dismayed, then you really haven’t been paying attention.
Detroit is one of those films that leaves you longing for a Best Ensemble Cast category at the Oscars, because the performances are excellent across the board. Baby-faced Will Poulter may well end up collecting the statue on behalf of the cast, after his chilling turn as the sadistic racist cop at the centre of the action.
At the end of the day, Detroit
is not a date movie, or a film to relax to after a long day, but it is a film you need to see. When it comes to important cinema, there will be few more profound or more powerful pieces this year.