Disunited states of America in timely tale

by Martin McNamara

“IT’S hard to believe that this could happen in America,” laments a radio reporter in a short snippet of archive audio in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit (Cert 15A, 142 mins).
Recounting true-life events steeped in racial hatred and police brutality, the above quote seems particularly timely.
Following the tragedy of the recent events in Charlottesville and a certain world leader’s less-than-damning response to the actions of the ultra-Right, a film that teaches us a lesson in the facts of America’s all too recent history of racial imbalance and injustice is deeply necessary.
The above quote refers to the violence of the riots in Detroit in the late Sixties, rather than the state’s brutal, prejudiced response.
Bigelow crafts a balanced view of the events; she damns the violence itself but targets the institutionalised racism that led to it in the first place.
Set in the summer of 1967, the city of Detroit is caught up in a whirlwind of unrest with black protesters calling for civil rights, unrest that explodes into chaos as the state response becomes more and more unjust.
When a report of gunshots at a motel prompt the police department, the state police and the National Guard to send in forces to “investigate”, naturally, they come in guns blazing.
A series of tragic events unfold, spurred on by police brutality and vicious interrogation tactics, while a lone security guard (John Boyega) attempts to stop things from boiling over at the scene.
The intense, pressure-cooker atmosphere here makes for an often uncomfortable watch and the sense of foreboding is often crushing, and unbearable.
Bigelow rarely holds back from capturing violence, yet her approach is never sensationalised. Detroit maintains a rich, documentary-like texture, helped on by the occasional punctuation of still archive photography.
The director adopts a newsreel-style shaky-cam approach, which is effective in the chaos of the riots and shootouts, but for the film’s more tender moments, like a scene in which a young singer (Algee Smith) performs to an empty, evacuated auditorium, the tactic is often quite jarring, occasionally clumsy.
The invasive camera eye allows for complete immersion within the events and evokes the director’s previous war films, but often denies us identification with the characters.
Still, the unifying aesthetic does give the film a consistency throughout – a not-so-simple feat for a film with a 140-minute run time and a huge cast of characters.
Indeed, this is an expertly assembled film – terrifically paced, featuring razor-sharp editing in the film’s fast-moving shootout sequences and the excellently placed splicing in of archive footage to add an extra layer of realism.
However, while the social aesthetic is deftly crafted, the point at its core is often laboured, particularly in the early stages of the narrative.
Detroit could maintain its chaotic, traumatic depiction of institutionalised brutality and racism while following a slightly subtler line of delivery.
An expository animated sequence that begins the film feels oddly placed and out of step with the rest of the aesthetic.
However, given the rate at which people seem to be forgetting the horrors of the past, perhaps this history lesson is a necessary one.
This isn’t a perfect film, but in troubled times, it’s a fine response to rising tensions. Perhaps Detroit would benefit from a little more subtlety, but the message is one that clearly needs to be heard loud and clear – perhaps subtlety isn’t the most efficient route at this point in time?
Verdict: 7/10

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