Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Just a touch heavy-handed, Detroit effectively gets its rather obvious point across thanks to a sharp sense of suspense and misdirection, and a fantastic turn from an initially rookie-seeming cop. Almost entirely predictable in its events, which is a good thing one would hope, even so we are unfortunately smacked with an intellectually-insulting, cartoonish (literally) and exceedingly brief history on the plight of the black man in the US among the last two or three centuries. Anyone who needed such a primary-school level introduction into the history of civil rights for African Americans I doubt would have been in attendance for the film, but there we have it. It really is hard to not feel like you are being lectured on the bloody obvious.
Moving on, the film begins promising as old footage from the time is spliced in occasionally with the escalating riots, maintaining a sense of realism needed for a story based on actual events.
This exposition however begins to drone on, and about twenty minutes could have been shaved from the opening half alone. We don’t need much of this information. We know it. What we want is the story. We eventually arrive at Algier’s Hotel, where, eventually, after some attempts to personalise the characters, the situation leads to the suspicion of a sniper in the building.
During the search for the sniper, police brutality seems like an understatement worthy of Everest. The film is quick to point out before credits that the events are based on what allegedly happened and what information was available, but the relevance to tensions in the US today cannot be accidental.
One line barked assertively by the officer in charge makes this reality chillingly clear, and is a fantastic piece of dialogue and timing. After having already suffered at the hands of the police-force, the sniper is still yet to be found. Every young black prisoner preys and urges that they know of no sniper. The response of the Police Chief is, simply:
“We don’t want a cop killer getting away, do we?”
The methods that were allegedly used under this precedent render this one line particularly memorable, as we know that their insane actions won’t face a fraction of the scrutiny; it is hard not to be reminded of countless recent cases, offending officers rarely serving any sort of sentence, let alone receiving the traumatizing and beating of a lifetime.
The most perplexing aspect of Detroit though is the role, or non-role, of Jon Boyega. Playing an Uncle Tom type of character, working for the security force trying to stop looting, this could have been an interesting character study into the psyche of a man who has taken the position he has, trying to help fellow black citizens subtly by hiding in plain sight.
This thing is getting too long already though, and perhaps due to this and the film’s following of Larry and his friends’ dream of making it big in entertainment despite the backdrop, which does help considering these are the people involved in the hotel siege, (of no fault of how own) Boyega’s role is barely that of a side-character; his every scene could have been deleted and the film could have hit harder and hovered around the two-hour mark, rather than approaching two and a half hours.
While the intentions of Detroit are exceedingly clear, it does as apt a job it could have done in eliminating bias, including scenes that don’t paint the black population as saintly by any stretch, as well a surprising amount of – on the surface at least – non-bigotry from white security forces that seem genuine in execution rather than forced. The baffling editorial decisions and the heavy exposition do weigh the film down, as does a fascinating character left thoroughly unexplored.
One particularly striking scene involving a fleeing, injured black man, and his reaction of intense terror when a white face points a light at him is hard to forget. It is a friendly face, but the lines have blurred to what it truly came down to – the colour of one’s skin. It isn’t perfect, but many moments of Detroit cut through and are hard to forget.
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