Kathryn Bigelow’s DETROIT shines chilling light on Detroit history
In the mid 20th century, white Detroiters moved out of the city in droves. It was called white flight and it’s doing led to the collapse of an already struggling Detroit economy and fed in to racial tensions amongst those who remained, of all races. In the 1960’s, Detroit was the 5th largest city in the country. Many transplants moved to the Detroit for the prospects of jobs in the Motor City and the night-life excitement of Motown. Much like the happenings in Montgomery, Chicago, and New York, Detroit was reaching a boiling point as racial tension was at an all time high in the summer of 1967. When director, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) and writer/producer partner Mark Boal took on the task of telling the otherwise unknown tale of the Algiers Motel, they did many things correctly, and left room for improvement.
If you don’t know of the incident that took place at the Algiers Motel Incident on July 25th, 2017, you are not alone. It’s not something many people, let alone Detroiters/Michiganders seem to be aware of. On that evening, after an evening of rather intense riots, an enforced curfew forced some to seek refuge at the motel for a night. When one young man started shooting blanks in to the air to spook the cops outside, the officers locked the building down and terrorized a group of 12 and murdered three of those 12. They used the “death game” method to terrorize the victims. Powerful performances from actors like John Boyega, Algee Smith, and Will Poulter left me in awe, as the emotional weight of filming these scenes and the way in which they did it is no small feat.
Right off the bat I’m going to remind everyone that this is a Kathryn Bigelow movie, therefor the “cinéma vérité “(truthful cinema) aka “shaky camera” method is used throughout. That being said, it perfectly fit with the narrative of the film and fed in to the overall ambiance of terror we as an audience feel while watching Detroit. Much of the film was recorded with a few cameras that never stopped rolling, as opposed to yelling “cut” to rearrange the lighting and angles. This allowed for the actors to focus wholly on their performances. Anthony Mackie (who plays Greene) said of the experience, “This technique allowed you as an actor to create your own space. You weren’t acting for the camera, you were acting in the scene like in a play. Since you didn’t know what camera was on you and when, you had to be there a hundred and ten percent all the time. It took you out of your comfort zone, which is what every actor needs.” Too often while watching period pieces revolving around Civil Rights or slavery do the filmmakers reliance on gore or shock to make us empathize and understand what is happening in a scene. Bigelow uses a much more nuanced approach that left me aching after 30-second sequences than entire films I have seen.
During this particular summer, it was believed that there were snipers hiding in the buildings aiming at police, there was a lot of looting, and an uprising stirring from angry citizens. You feel the tension from the opening credit and feel it compounded with each offhanded comment made by the officers we follow. Philip Krauss (played by Will Poulter) is truly reprehensible in his character, so much so that seeing him at a press junket the next day left a little chill in my spine seeing him in person. On the flip side, Boyega’s performance as Melvin Dismukes and all his complexities, made me want to sit down and have extensive conversations about choices he…or rather his character….or rather the real Melvin Dismukes made. Most of the characters in this film are real people. Poulter’s character is based on several and was created to antagonize. I love when casts of relatively unknown group of actors give five star performances like this, because the talent is there, and it’s raw.
I do, however, wish Detroit had incorporated more (or rather, any) black women as more than just sisters and wives briefly being shocked and sad. I understand that this movie centers around a particular event, but there were more than a few times we could’ve acknowledged how the riots affected more than just black men. This movie touches on something that is bigger than any singular event and at it’s core, these uprisings, or riots, or whatever you want to call them, were igniting a movement that so many black women across the nation were apart of. I patiently waited for some sort of nod as to what was stirring on a grander level, but it never came. If my reference to the fictional Phillip Krauss didn’t give you an indication, this film fully acknowledges that it took some creative liberties and is not meant to be a documentary, so it is within their realm to use more African American women. Hidden Figures was so celebrated primarily because there are so many phenomenal women of color that have done extraordinary things in history, but they usually are in fact, hidden.
This was a quality film that deserves all the positive recognition it will receive in the coming months and years, but it also exposes a fatal flaw in the way our society recalls history. There’s no one way to fix this line of thinking, but if this film and the racial issues our country faces have proven anything, it’s that ignoring profound issues never truly solves them.