DETROIT IS AN UNFLINCHING AND DISTURBING REMINDER OF A HARSH REALITY
Movies are often said to provide escapism and diversion for its viewers, but every so often there comes a motion picture that does the opposite. These films reinforce reality, even if it’s a reality some may not want to acknowledge, and they remind us of the constant work that’s needed in any civil society.
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s latest work “Detroit” is one of those movies, and while both saddening and horrifying in the events it depicts, it is undoubtedly an important and significant work of cinema. There’s no sugar-coating here or attempts to make this a pleasant experience, but that’s why this movie should be applauded. Because the injustices and realities of the real world cannot be sugar-coated either.
A dramatization of the infamous 12th Street Riots that gripped the city of Detroit in July 1967, Bigelow once again teams up with screenwriter and fellow Oscar winner Mark Boal to highlight one of the many dark chapters in modern American history. Over a period of five days, racial tensions escalated in Detroit. Blacks clashed with a largely white police force over a variety of grievances ranging from heavy handed policing, economic disparity and systemic racism. Amongst the notable incidents to emerge from these riots was the Algiers Motel Incident. It was there that three black men were killed, while nine other people were beaten and humiliated at the hands of corrupt and racist officers and other members of the National Guard.
If these sorts of incidents concerning black Americans and their encounters with white police officers seems familiar, it’s because even now in contemporary America the racial tension remains. It is thus very disheartening to think that while watching these events in the film, set 50 years ago, they are still so similar today. Certainly, things have assuredly improved in civil rights since the 60s, but then events like those in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 or the 2015 death of Freddie Grey in Baltimore (amongst many other incidents involving African Americans and the police), remind us that still much better work must be done otherwise events like Detroit in 1967 will have meant nothing.
The tone of the film is dark, not solely from a screenplay perspective but also in its cinematography. Much of the film takes place at night, spotlighting not just the darkness of the actions but the darkness that befell the city. Scenes of raging fires, looted and destroyed stores, and crowds clashing with each other and the authorities are indeed compelling and gripping. Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd have created an atmosphere of great dread, that mixed with actual news reel footage is distressing and eye-opening.
As for the previously mentioned screenwriter Mark Boal, he has once again shown his abilities to create great tension and uncertainty. Like “Zero Dark Thirty” that was based on historical happenings, Boal still manages to make the audience question the outcomes, even if we already know them. The one weakness, however, may be the possibility of seeing these events as being interpreted in a black and white fashion (no pun intended). The black rioters and victims can be clearly seen as the ‘good guys’ and the largely white authorities are the ‘bad guys’, and while racial discrimination doesn’t have to be explained, the motivations for some of the officers’ behaviors is never elaborated. Are we to assume that all white officers dealing with the riots were vindictive, violent racists? Conversely were all the blacks involved in the riots going hungry and fully innocent? Though scenes of looters are showcased for the disorder they bring, there is a general feeling that most of the blame lies at the hands of the police. This is not to say that Boal or Bigelow have intentionally tried to skew events or drive a certain political agenda, after all, there was villainy on both sides but perhaps a deeper examination of individual motivations would have elevated the drama.
Ultimately “Detroit” is an unflinching, violent and disturbing tale of the many scars on the face of America. It serves not just as a historical movie, but a commentary of the realities that continue to exist, long after many would assume they should have disappeared. Kathryn Bigelow reaffirms her strength behind the camera for telling compelling stories that are both enthralling but also deeply saddening. And so, watching “Detroit” will not provide you with escapism or fun thrills, but still, it remains a must watch project. Not just because of the talent assembled on both sides of the camera, but because of the pertinent commentary (even if somewhat flawed) it has chosen to give on America and humanity.