Perils of confronting race in cinema
Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow's film about Detroit's 1967 riot is timely - but fails to strike a balance, writes our film critic
Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit, which opens here next week, could hardly be arriving in cinemas at a more appropriate time. Her meticulously assembled film dramatises one of the most notorious chapters in recent US history, the murder of three teenage African-American males by police during the 12th Street Riot of 1967.
The film is appearing as America seems once again at war with itself. Racial politics have been front and centre in the US for the last three years, as events at Ferguson and elsewhere have revived the spectre of endemic police racism, and tensions have inevitably been ratcheted up by the arrival of Donald Trump.
The Charlottesville incident, during which a mob of far-right white supremacists chanted "Heil Trump" and "blood and soil" while picking a fight with opposing protesters over the fate of a statue of General Robert E Lee, ended in horror when a white man drove a car into the crowd, injuring 19 and killing a young woman.
The Nazi symbolism and overt fascism on display were shocking, yet President Trump initially refused to distance himself from a demographic that clearly loves him, talking instead about the "hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides". His eventual condemnation, which came a full two days later, felt forced and added to the growing feeling in some quarters that Trump is a president for white Americans only.
Detroit provides a timely reminder of the multiple grievances and injustices that have poisoned US race relations for years, decades, centuries. The thing some observers find odd, however, is that Kathryn Bigelow should be the person who made it.
The 65-year-old Californian made her name with mainstream genre pictures like Blue Steel, Point Break and Strange Days before moving into more hard-hitting territory through her collaboration with writer Mark Boal. They set out to approach film-making as if it were journalism, beginning with their brilliantly executed 2008 thriller The Hurt Locker. It starred Jeremy Renner as an army bomb disposal expert who's become addicted to the thrill of combat and keeps returning to Iraq for more.
It was very good indeed, and Bigelow subsequently became the first woman ever to win the Best Director Academy Award. But the film pointedly failed to criticise the logic of a war whose disastrous consequences were already evident.
Things got altogether stickier after Zero Dark Thirty was released.
Another superbly orchestrated geopolitical epic, it used extensive research and first-hand accounts to dramatise the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. But it came under heavy fire for allegedly implying that waterboarding and other so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" had provided essential clues to the terrorist's whereabouts.
Not so, said the CIA's acting director - and a good number of other high-profile operatives and politicians, who accused the film of glorifying torture as a dirty but necessary job. This may not have been the Bigelow/Boal intention, but it underlines the flaws in their journalistic approach to film-making, which pretends that the resulting films are neutral, and do not have a point of view. They do, and Detroit's seems a little confused. It opens on a hot July night in the summer of 1967, when a heavy-handed police raid on a late-night African-American drinking club on 12th Street sparks a furious civilian uprising. Real newsreels and TV reports are used to demonstrate the attitudes of the day, when black riots in urban ghettoes were often presented as mere crimes that had no societal context.
The unrest in Detroit would last for days, and as police and soldiers patrolled the streets paranoid about being shot at by snipers, a shocking event unfolded at a ratty hotel. In Bigelow's film, two African-American friends shoot off a starter pistol from an upstairs window for a joke, but quickly regret it as the Algiers Motel is descended on by heavily armed police.
One of them, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), is clearly a psychopath, and after 10 young black males and two white women have been rounded up by he and his associates, the bullying, torture and killing start. The latter third of Detroit is hard to watch, and Bigelow pulls no punches in depicting the horrific scenes that took place in that rundown motel.
But in choosing to focus her attention on that incident rather than the riot in general, she has created a depressingly familiar movie scenario, in which the black characters are helpless victims who can only be rescued - or destroyed - by white protagonists who have all the power. What happened at the Algiers Motel cannot be rejigged for cinematic effect: black people were tortured and killed by white policemen, and all of that is gruellingly depicted.
But the wider riot was an out-and-out battle that lasted four days and inflicted heavy casualties on both sides. Sixteen soldiers, two policemen and 23 civilians died, and many hundreds were wounded. This might have been a more complex story to tell, but would have given Boal and Bigelow a chance to present a more balanced picture of the riot and its causes: we get little of that in Detroit.
In fairness to Bigelow and Boal, American race politics is a minefield of sensitivities and potential slights, rarely more so than at the present minute, and they are to be commended for taking on this subject in the first place. But literal depictions of historical events can only go so far in increasing understanding of the ingrained nature of American racism. Earlier this year, a satirical slasher movie did a whole lot better.
Made for just $4.5m, Jordan Peele's Get Out was a horror film with hidden depths. Daniel Kaluuya played Chris, a Brooklyn photographer who's dreading an impending trip to his white girlfriend's parents.
When he gets to the impressive Armitage estate, Chris's fears initially seem unfounded. For Rose's parents are dyed-in-the-wool liberals, who insist they'd have voted for Obama a third time if it was legal. But all their servants are black, and when Chris approaches them, they seem stiff, and tense, and talk like white people. Something is amiss. Though it worked well as a straightforward horror film, Get Out was really a satire about race. As the film progressed, the Armitage estate began to seem more and more like a plantation in the old south, and the protagonist's skin colour was a constant issue.
The film's approach to all this was humorous rather than po-faced. In one brilliant scene, Chris endures an excruciating afternoon at an all-white drinks party, as the guests vie to prove they don't have a problem with his colour, and one explains at length how much he likes Tiger Woods. But Chris is not immune from the taint of racism either: he's horrified when a black neighbour he meets tries to shake his hand rather than fist-pump it, and he's deeply suspicious of any African-American who sounds insufficiently 'street'.
This highly evolved approach to the thorny subject of racism makes films like Detroit seem slow-moving, old fashioned, and so in its way does Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, the surprise winner of the Best Picture Oscar at this year's Academy Awards. Barry Jenkins' film was written by Tarell McCraney and based on their experiences growing up in Miami's Liberty City projects.
It told the story of Chiron, the embattled son of a heroin-addicted single mother whose problems are compounded by the growing realisation that he is gay. Mahershala Ali won an Oscar playing his unlikely saviour, a drug dealer called Juan.
Moonlight was a bleak but beautiful film that subverted the ghetto clichés at every opportunity, forcing us to consider addicts, pushers, victims and street criminals as people rather than stereotypes. Time and again, Jenkins challenged our received notions about ghetto life, using classical music rather than hip-hop to jar us out of our cultural stupors and consider, without prejudice, characters like Juan and Chiron's mother, Paula.
Race is now a hot topic in Hollywood. Warner Brothers are planning a film about the shooting of Michael Brown that sparked the Ferguson riots, and Gook, a movie about the LA riots has just been released in the US.
Detroit, despite its shortcomings, starkly illustrates how little has changed. After a shambolic court case, all the police officers involved in the Algiers Motel killings were acquitted.