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Watched: 9 December

Though she’s still known primarily for being a director of frenetic, ballistic action, Kathryn Bigelow’s forte in recent years has been an ability to construct slower, longer, tenser set pieces – and indeed slower, longer, tenser films – that rely less on kineticism and more upon the reactions of her characters to or within their particular situations. Now, following her critically-lauded brace of films exploring the Iraq War and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Bigelow has turned her attention back on home soil with a film about the Detroit riots of 1967 (specifically the Algiers Motel incident, in which three young black men were killed and several more black men, and two white women, were beaten and humiliated); though it looks back to an incident that was roughly 50 years earlier, as an exploration of institutional racism and police brutality towards black people in America Detroit couldn’t be timelier.

As you would expect, watching this dramatic recreation of events which attempts to put you in the midst of the action, at least as much as a film is able to do so is an incredibly fraught, uncomfortable experience. That’s thanks in part to Bigelow’s direction and Barry Ackroyd’s up-close-and-personal cinematography, though most of the credit should go to the actors for their impressive performances: Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell and John Boyega shine as three of the men caught up in the siege (Boyega’s character, a security guard named Melvin Dismukes, is somewhat trapped in the middle, often trying to placate the sadistic, racist cops and members of the National Guard who storm the building); Will Poulter, meanwhile, is terrifying as the worst officer of a bad bunch, his youthful looks being somewhat wrong-footing.

Some critics have taken issue with the director’s decision to focus on one incident, arguing that a more comprehensive look at the city before, during and after the riots could have been provided, though in fairness Bigelow does attempt to address this, albeit via a brief prologue on the African-American experience throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. I wonder whether expecting a single, two-hour-long film to provide an all-encompassing history of black civil rights issues, or even a comprehensive take on a single American city at this point in time, is a classic case of wishful thinking, though; however it is certainly true that Zero Dark Thirty Bigelow’s decade-spanning Bin Laden movie managed to fit in a lot more on its particular subject matter.

The director spends the final act of the film detailing the aftermath of the siege, and the last thirty minutes or so contains scenes of courtroom drama that seem aptly muted to me, and certainly much more low-key than those of the preceding hour or so; they are informed by the resignation of the surviving black characters, who do not expect to see justice and are duly unsurprised when an all-white jury fails them. As such Bigelow’s film finishes with notes of hopelessness and disappointment, which are to a certain extent offset by a simple, short epilogue depicting live music and entertainment as an act of resistance or defiance, or symbolising an unbroken spirit. Even though this has led to a slightly uneven, top-heavy film, the muted sigh offered by Detroit’s last half-hour feels necessary given the outcome of the story in real life. (***½)

 

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