More noise than signal


Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

With recent world events showing that the once mooted “post-racial” worldview is not, in fact, coming to pass anytime soon, Detroit‘s release last year felt timely amidst the Black Lives Matter movement and, well, sadly it’s just as topical a year later, even with Kathryn Bigelow’s film centering on the Algiers Motel incident, in the middle of 1967’s wave of race riots.

The historical record of the events is not clear, so there’s a degree of interpretation here, but I don’t think there’s much disputing that white police officers grotesquely abused their power, leading to the deaths of three black men, and violent assault of nine other people.

Starting with describing the boiling point that lead to the riots, the raid of a party for returning black Vietnam veterans, we shift to the people caught up in the turmoil of the situation. The lead singer of an R&B group, Larry Reed and his friend Fred Temple (Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore) are cut off from their route home after their concert is cancelled and rent a room at the Algiers Motel. They meet the other patrons, at one point being threatened with what turns out to only be a starter’s pistol by asshat Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), in what I believe was termed at the time a “prank”, now called a”social experiment” or “being a dickhole”.

Meanwhile security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is close by, attempting to moderate the responses of the mobilised national guard, at which point Cooper makes the, frankly, idiotic decision to take a few shots out of the window as an ill-advised empowerment prank/act of dickholery. The National Guardsmen and the police respond quickly, with Dismukes along still trying to prevent unneeded death. This doesn’t go too well, as the police are barbarians.

Ringleader Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), who we’ve already been introduced to as he shoots and kills a fleeing, unarmed subject in the back, rounds up the guests and starts to use what I believe we refer to these days as “enhanced interrogation techniques” to find out who has the gun, and who was shooting at them, with things getting increasingly out of hand as no answers are forthcoming. Things go entirely off the rails when, in a fun game of “mock-execution”, no-one tells the rookie cop about the “mock” part of it, leading to the tragic outcome mentioned before.

The film rounds off with a look at the devastated lives of the surviving victims, and the victims’ families, and a search for justice that’s entirely thwarted by a legal system tilted against them.

The cast are uniformly excellent, Will Poulter being particularly hateful in his role, and John Boyega showing chops that the Star Wars nonsense doesn’t give him any room to demonstrate, and overall it’s a great ensemble performance. The script is powerful, and the direction matches that building moments of great tension.

For all the critical acclaim this garnered, which I agree with were that not obvious, this underperformed at the box office. Which is a shame, as this is almost objectively a good movie. It has all the characteristics of one. It is however, I suppose, a hard sell for a fun Friday night at the cinema. It’s not possible to watch this set apart from its politics, and I suppose I understand why in our current situation “more politics” is not something people want to countenance. Particularly when every morning we must wake up to check that the supposed leader of the free world hasn’t tweeted out the start of World War 3,and instead has just picked a meaningless fight with a pop star, because that’s the world we live in now.

Amongst the potential white audience for this film, which I think I can speak for 100% of due to our shared skin colour, there’s most likely a reluctance to face up to the consequences of the institutional racism the past few hundred years of colonialism and slavery has wound up with. I don’t mean that particularly pejoratively – I do believe that outside, I assume, of white supremacist circles, most people would not believe they hold any racist views, just as they’d all think that slavery is a bad thing. But examining the consequences of this history is not something a lot of people want to do, especially for fun.

Again I get it – if you’re a millennial on a zero hours, minimum wage contract in a Western world where wealth inequality is skyrocketing, and we’re expected to be less well off than the generation before us, it feels like an insult to be told you’re still benefiting from this miserable chapter in human history. Yet, we are, so it’s surely incumbent on us to examine this, and Detroit provides a visceral way to feel, just slightly, a small portion of this legacy’s toll on African-Americans in a way that academic reports cannot.

But that’s making a case for Detroit as uncomfortable homework, when assuming that you can make your peace with the inherent politics from which it stems, this is an exceptionally taut thriller that keeps you on at least the metaphorical edge of your seat. My copious arse was right at the back of the sofa, but it’s nonetheless very tense, superbly acted and framed. The weight of history almost precludes this being described as enjoyable – maybe if these were fictional characters it’d be easier to watch, but with these folks being real, well, the stakes involved makes this much scarier than any horror movie I’ve seen of late.

An excellent film and I’d have put it in the running for my best film of 2017, had I got to it in time.