Making a film about race and the brutality of racism requires a skilled hand. One that not only understands its nuances but the psychologies and systems that allow it to exist. Following the blunt object that was Zero Dark Thirty, the idea of Kathryn Bigelow turning her focus back to the Detroit riots of 1967 didn't inspire much confidence. If ever there was an event that needed a more considered approach it was the cold blooded murder of three black men by white police officers, but Bigelow's head-on charge into the world of male masculinity continues at full pace.
The intro skims through 50 years of history, recalling the migration of black people from the Southern states of America into the North, searching for work after the end of World War I. Racial tensions in Detroit are at their peak by the time we join the story, watching on as anger towards the police spreads across black neighbourhoods. We pick up on the character threads of soul singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) as their worlds are ominously drawn together. By the time we reach the hotel, Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) has been established as a brutal racist murderer, and it is no surprise that he and his colleagues are one of the first on the scene in response to a reported sniper attack.
Much like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow's verité-style is used to pitch us right into the pulsating heart of the action. It's used effectively out on the streets, building up to and during the riot sequences, creating a palpable sense of danger as the level of rage boils over. After weaving in archived footage to add some authenticity, the groundwork is well laid for the heavy lifting to come in the dramatic second act. And yet, it never arrives. In its place we are given scene after scene of gratuitous, unflinching violence dealt out to those who were inside the Algiers hotel.
What Bigelow seems to have gone for is an immersion into ‘the facts’, which is commendable up to a point, until its unrelenting stance damages the overall context of events. Continually showing the brutality of what took place in the hotel is a far safer decision to make, rather than using it as a platform to include the political and justice systems that allowed it occur. Placing the unwelcoming face of Will Poulter into the role of officer Krauss takes the easy route out to divide the situation into a simple good vs evil. He doesn’t need to humanised in anyway, but the trio of white cops at the centre of the Algiers incident appear to stand out as the only racists in the entire Detroit police force. 50 years on, and the ongoing oppression of black America will tell you that the problem is far larger than just a few bad eggs.
The problems continue with John Boyega’s character who remains passively hollow throughout the film, a calming presence whose complicity in events is barely touched upon. Melvin Dismukes was charged and put on trial alongside the three accused cops and the depth of his inner turmoil is shown only through a few silent, lingering stares. Algee Smith does well enough with the character of Larry Reed, who gave up his role as leader singer of Motown group 'The Dramatics' once he recovered from his ordeal inside Algiers. Further time is wasted in a cut-and-dry court sequence that adds nothing to the film and after two-and-a-half hours, Bigelow and writer Mark Boal fail to fill in the hollowness of each character.
Following the films release the question has been asked, should a white director have told this story at all? Race is not the decisive factor here, as there have been many films successfully made by white directors about the black experience. Whether Bigelow had any guidance within her own crew is another matter entirely. What feels particularly strange is the complete omission of a female voice, which sadly seems to be the norm in these historic recollections. Detroit is a story that needed to be told but because these brutalities continue today, simply showing us the violence is not good enough. Whether it’s the beating of Rodney King or the murder of Philando Castile, the images exist so vividly in the real world that we do not need to visit the cinema to understand their barbarity. This film needed to offer far more than just physical aggression and it fails on almost every single count.