Sunday 15 July 2018

Fear and loathing in Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow's account of the city's race riots is muddled and gloomy, says our film critic

Trigger happy: Will Poulter plays a racist National Guard member in Detroit
Trigger happy: Will Poulter plays a racist National Guard member in Detroit

Paul Whitington

Kathryn Bigelow isn't one to shy away from difficult subjects. She took on the second Iraq War in The Hurt Locker, the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, and in Detroit she and her regular writing partner Mark Boal tackle one of the more notorious moments in recent American history.

Sprawling, gritty, relentlessly gloomy, Detroit is set in July, 1967, when tensions between police and black residents of that city's downtown neighbourhood boiled over into violence and looting.

Bigelow's film starts as if it means to confront this meaty subject head on. Revellers are enjoying themselves at a late night African-American drinking club when a heavy-handed police raid sparks a furious reaction.

As police units pile into the neighbourhood, a gathering crowd of furious locals gather to witness men and women being dragged to waiting police vans and beaten if they put up a struggle. "You wouldn't do that to white men," one wise old lady mutters, then the stones and bricks start flying, and the 12th Street riots begin.

They would last four days and lead to hundreds of casualties and the deaths of two policemen, 16 soldiers and 23 civilians. But instead of trying to find a way of telling this huge story, Bigelow and Boal shift their focus to a rundown joint called the Algiers Motel, which will be the scene of an enduring outrage.

Black security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is protecting a local grocery store when he sees a platoon of National Guardsmen loitering nervously across the road. They're paranoid about reports of snipers and as he approaches them with kind words and coffee, a shot rings out from the Algiers. It's a blank fired from a starter pistol by two young pranksters for a joke, which they will bitterly regret when the flea pit is descended on by police.

These supposed law enforcers are led by Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), an unhinged racist with violent tendencies that have already surfaced early in the riots when he shot dead an unarmed man.

Things will get worse for all concerned at the Algiers when he rounds up a group of young black men and finds that two young white women have been hanging out with them. All are lined up, humiliated, beaten and subjected to mock executions. But Krauss's colleagues (Jack Reynor, Ben O'Toole) are not very bright and pretty soon, people start actually dying.

Having hastily established the reasons for the riots, Detroit loiters at the Algiers Motel for a good hour and half before rushing through the subsequent criminal trial. I will not reveal its outcome, though it will surprise no one.

The horrors at the motel are, I will not say lovingly, but minutely dwelt on, yet all they give us is another lesson in the venality of human nature.

Some fine actors (Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Anthony Mackie) play the victims, but it doesn't really matter. They're given back stories and we get glimpses of how the incident blighted the survivors' lives but, mostly, they just suffer in a pointless and unenlightening way. As for the policemen, they might as well be wearing white Klan sheets, so little do we find out about why they are how they are.

And in choosing to focus her attention on that incident rather than the riot in general, Bigelow has created a depressingly familiar movie scenario, in which black characters are helpless victims who can only be rescued - or destroyed - by white protagonists with all the power.

Even though his character is underwritten, John Boyega is the best thing in the film, playing a black man who, though sympathetic to the victims, becomes complicit by standing by and doing nothing.

Is Detroit a noble failure? I'm not sure, but it's certainly a dull one. Because as riveting as the Algiers siege sounds, it's both depressing and strangely boring, an extended exercise in cinematic cruelty that serves no purpose other than exposing a scandal that is not exactly obscure.

It's well made, of course (all Bigelow's films are technically excellent), but Detroit is a frustrating muddle, a shadow of the epic it might have been.

Detroit

(15A, 143mins)

★★★

Films coming soon...

God's Own Country (Josh O'Connor, Alec Secareanu, Ian Hart, Gemma Jones); Patti Cakes (McCaul Lombard, Danielle Macdonald); The Limehouse Golem (Bill Nighy, Daniel Mays, Olivia Cooke); Una (Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed).

Irish Independent

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