Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit tells the true story of one of the most barbaric and terrifying moments of the Civil Rights era in the United States of America, Detroit in the summer of 1967. In amongst the chaos the Detroit Riots, with the city closed and the Michigan National Guard patrolling the streets, three young black men were killed at the Algiers Motel, along with the beating and maiming of nine more people (two of them white women). Fifty years after the events of July 25 1967, the question still remains: what really happened there that night? And Kathryn Bigelow also pokes the question at American society and its race relations. And I believe she asks, what has actually changed?
Amidst the barrage of posts and opinions on Bigelow’s modern historical drama Detroit, there’s been much backlash at its depiction of police brutality and how she could get the actors involved to reenact the film’s key moments: police torturing and abusing black men and white women for information. Though, torturing and brutality in this way is not so uncommon in movies and TV shows when the target is women. Now the roles are reversed. When men are being given the same treatment, it now has people up in arms. Though truth be told, black men being treated like this at the hands of law enforcement in America, even in 2017, looks like just another Sunday.
In light of the cultural awareness of the increasing deaths of black civilians at the hands US police, Detroit couldn’t be more timely. The film starts with a montage of America’s Black History, including: the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Jim Crow Laws and national migration which leads into the Civil Rights-era of the 1960s and gives general audiences the historical reasons why White Power exists. Through this, Bigelow has made a point without scoring political points (by bringing up fresh events like the murder of Trayvon Martin). And casting Will Poulter (The Revenant) as Krauss (a racist police officer) has to be one of the best casting decisions made in a film in the last decade.
Detroit is a tale as old as time in America. Black America’s relationship with police has always been a tetchy one. No matter if we’re talking the LAPD (Straight Outta Compton), the NYPD (Luke Cage) or the American South (Loving, Selma). These depictions of police in movies and shows are imitations of reality. Ava DuVernay goes into that history in her documentary 13TH. But Bigelow’s direction shows her understanding of the current cultural climate. People criticised: “should a white person be making a film like this?” I don’t think colour matters in terms of who’s behind the camera as her viewpoint is planted in making links between people, no matter their era or circumstance.
The second act (forty-five minutes) recreates the hotel invasion. During the Siege of the Algiers Hotel, several black men (and two white women) are lined up against a wall. They’re beaten, terrorised and humiliated by power-hungry, racist, police officers (led by Poulter) after a black man (Jason Mitchell) shoots a starter pistol from an upstairs window. This sequence involves the police playing mind games, inflicting physical violence and eventually killing three of these men. It’s bloody, brutal and completely barbaric. Unforgiving and unflinching. Authentic, and that’s how it should be. Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore and Anthony Mackie all did a great job in this scene.
Detroit is not the first film to show racially-motivated violence against black men, let alone at the hands of white people. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and DuVernay’s Selma show this too. But what Detroit does is show these men as damsels in distress. We see this same level of brutalisation of female characters on TV and in films all the time. It’s now at a point that seeing women in these compromising situations has become normalised. The moments with Hannah Murray (Game of Thrones) and Kaitlyn Dever (Justified) being tormented and abused would not be unseemly in an action film, TV drama or fantasy historical drama (The Tudors / Game of Thrones).
Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is an excellent period crime piece and not for the fainthearted. What’s more, it’s telling America to sort its self out. From slavery to Jim Crow to Civil Rights, White America has a lot to answer for in terms of its treatment of people of colour and it shows that the United States hasn’t really changed that much in fifty years, the system is crooked, police look after their own and police brutality should be dealt with in the same way as all criminality.