Big Screen: Detroit

November 23rd 2017

‘Detroit’ starts like a fever dream, then narrows in on a single motel during the city’s 1976 race riots.

Director Kathryn Bigelow deals with the big issues. She’s known for films like ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty‘, having tackled the Iraq War and the hunt for Osama bin Laden with subtlety and craft. It’s only natural that her next project has manifested as a powerful exploration of racial tensions in America. 

As tensions flare in the Motor City, a squad of racist cops are drawn to the Algiers Motel, where a group of bored young black men have shot a starter-pistol from a rooftop. In a city of sweltering heat and simmering animosity it’s the catalyst for a gruelling power play between the Detroit PD and the soon-to-be victims of police brutality.

It’s a tough watch. The centrepiece of the movie is a violent interrogation by the police officers as they try to locate the gun — a brutal intimidation that is drawn out in excruciating detail. Bigelow is unapologetic in her harsh depiction of the incident, capturing not just the savagery of the police, but the overwhelming fear of everyone in the scene as well.

That fear is what drives the movie. It’s written on the faces of the cops and the guests of the Algiers Motel alike, but the way each person acts upon it is dramatically different. The cops attempt to excise their fear through show of force; the black hostages are simply desperate to get out alive. Throughout the film, Bigelow tries to understand what makes people behave the way they do when they feel outnumbered.



None of this is better demonstrated then when it comes to John Boyega’s performance as Melvin Dismukes. Dismukes is a supermarket security guard, who tries to alleviate the violence of the riots by acting as an ad hoc intermediary between the police and the black community. He suffers the casual racism of the police grudgingly, hoping that by putting on a brave face he can save innocent men from the wrath of the cops. But once he’s embroiled in the intimidation tactics at the Algiers Motel, he is drawn into complicity with the racist cops, until the line between intermediary and enabler is blurred beyond recognition. It’s a tragic, but fascinating case study that poses a difficult question about race relations in modern day America.

Those types of questions don’t lend themselves to easy answers, which is why ‘Detroit’ isn’t an easy film. Instead, Bigelow has crafted a movie that’s challenging, and at times confusing, to place her audience right in the thick of the action. And by compelling us to feel the pressure of those riots, and the anxiety during the intimidation, its serves as a potent reminder of how little has changed and the ways we still have to go in the fight against racism. 



Read more from James Ross

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