When director Paul Greengrass released his 2002 film Bloody Sunday, a re-enactment of the ‘72 shootings in Derry, Ireland, it was the first time movie-goers were exposed to his faux documentary style of storytelling. Shot entirely with a hand-held, the end result was raw, urgent, and genuine. It was as if the director and his cameras were right there, in the middle of the chaos, recording every moment from within.
With Detroit, like Bloody Sunday’s re-enactment of a historic event that had you witnessing from the inside, director Kathryn Bigelow has applied the same hand-held, documented look throughout, but unlike the English director, she doesn’t bring attention to the form. With Greengrass you’re always aware of the cinematography as it swirls, zooms, and shakes all over the place. With Bigelow, it’s there, but it never appears quite so obvious, nor so nauseous inducing. She’s perfected the art of using the hand-held for urgent effect and making it cinematic. And she’s beaten Greengrass at his own style by finding the right balance of what works with this jittery visual form on a giant canvas. Detroit is, beyond question, her best film to date.
Told in three, very distinctive acts, act one shows the street riots and why they occurred; act two re-enacts the appalling events within the hallway of the Algiers Motel; and act three presents the court case that followed and its aftermath.
Most commonly known as the 12th Street Riot, a 1967 late night, early morning party at an unlicensed, second-floor bar, was raided by the police. With a zeal reaching way beyond what was necessary, the authorities dragged the black patrons out, lined them up on the street, and loaded them into wagons, treating them as if they were criminals, all in full view of a gathering crowd. “I almost feel sorry for them,” states the officer in charge. Then, sensing a mounting danger from those observing and demanding, “What did they do?” that same officer tells his men, “We gotta get out of here.”
His senses were right. Chaos erupted, property destruction and deadly violence followed. The riots that began on the corner of 12th Street lasted five days. In addition to the police with orders not to shoot, Governor Romney sent in the National Guard, while President Johnson sent in the 82nd and the 101st Airborne Divisions. For the record, the statistics were 2000 buildings destroyed, 7,200 arrests, 1,189 injured, and 43 dead.
But that’s not the film; the riots become the backdrop to a racially incendiary occurrence that happened nearby. At the film’s center is an event known as the Algiers Motel Incident, and this is where Detroit really takes off. Director Bigelow and writer Mark Boal incorporate what took place about a mile away at the Algiers. What began with an irresponsible shot from a starter pistol and mistaken for sniper fire turned into a nightmare.
While taking refuge from the riots outside, a group of local black teenagers, plus two white girls visiting from Ohio and staying at the motel, were lined up in the hallway, degraded, bullied, and brutally beaten by members of the Detroit Police Department, the MIchigan State Police and the Michigan Army National Guard. Three of those teenagers were killed.
Almost all of the horrifying behavior of the police that occurred within those rooms and the hallway are on record. Those areas where events are vague are recreated by writer Boal, based on eye-witness accounts. In other words, what you’ll see is pretty much what happened, as supported by those who would later testify.
At the time, Detroit police ranked 93% white, of which a huge percentage was on record as ‘prejudiced.’ As presented in the film, the atrocities perpetrated by Officer Philip Krauss (a frighteningly authentic turn from Will Poulter) and his two fellow officers go way beyond acting overzealous. They’re giddy on their on their own power, bully frat boys on pledge night gone rabid, exploiting an opportunity to indulge in blunt force while protected from retaliation by the intimidation their uniform reflects. “I will kill you one by one until someone tells me what’s going on,” Krauss threatens.
Here, prejudice isn’t a case of disliking someone because they’re a different color; it’s not that simple. For a hate filled man like Krauss, it’s their very being, their features, the difference in culture, everything about them. When threatening the women, he can’t believe either of the two girls from Ohio would ever chose to be in the company of a black man over a white. To him, those black teenagers aren’t really people. “Doesn’t it bother you?” he asks, “The sheen in their hair? The smell?” It’s that exchange, that one, terrifying scene that becomes the film’s reason to be. The ignorance of a bullying white cop, his abhorrent behavior. and his repulsive questions; they’re at the heart of everything wrong.
There’s a fleeting moment of relief when one of those severely beaten teenagers escapes the building from the back, and staggers out. When found fleeing by more police, there’s an initial fear that we’re about to witness even more atrocity. Instead, the cop shines his light on the face of the heavily bloodied man, and asks with genuine compassion, “Who would do this to someone?” The cop then proceeds to get the teenager to a hospital.
There are so many words that describe how audiences will feel at the injustice once the third and final act concludes; angry, outraged, incensed: they’re all appropriate. Yet at the same time, they’re not enough. Neither is it enough to call the film shocking, powerful, or even timely, surprising for a film that takes place in the late sixties, even though they all apply. When the two girls are eventually helped out of that annex by a soldier of the U.S. Army, essentially rescued, and told to stay hidden in their room, they ask, “Are we safe?” It’s not the riots they’re worried about, it’s the officers of the Detroit Police Department. “Are you going to tell them where we are?”
MPAA Rating: R Length: 143 Minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)