Swapping John Boorman’s ‘Deliverance’ (1972) canoe for a 60s gas guzzling road boat and steering us into Red Neck Hell City, Kathryn Bigelow has skilfully captured what is in one context an extremely violent (is there any other kind in that Nation’s history) period of social unrest due to profound and endemic racism, that is both potent and tragically prescient being what transpires on screen could be a live stream from many parts of ‘modern’ America today.
‘Detroit’ opens with an animation (inspired by artist Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series) that gives a very brief history of black migration, and by that I mean the slave trade that established so much of the Western world’s wealth. It’s great that the sequence is there, but shocking that it needs to be and that everyone doesn’t already know about it. As we swipe left more into a vacuous culture of 24/7 digital vanity, mirror, mirror in my hand… how much of history repeating itself are we going to enable due to self medicated ignorance?
In that context it’s essential that such features are produced, as if in honour to the late Malcolm X, ‘any means necessary’ must involve spreading knowledge and information that could all too readily and literally whitewashed away under gigabytes of pixel trash fills. Bigelow should be commended on every level for what she has done and achieved.
Before we slide into the societal circles of Hell that is ‘Detroit’, it should be pointed out how much beauty is in the movie. It looks incredible, with beautiful retro lenses being used by Paul Greengrass cinematography main man Barry Ackroyd, a stunning soundtrack that just makes you want to throw on some tight and sharp threads and time travel back to the youthful years of Motown to spend a year going to gigs. There’s a few live sets performed at the Fox theatre venue that just burst with vitality, beauty, vibrance and excitement that I could have watched a whole movie on that alone. The sound production during those scenes wonderfully recreate what it would have been like.
The costumes, detailing, sets, cars, haircuts are stunning throughout, the horror and cruelty of man never looked so sharp.
It’s all the more potent when such gorgeous expressions of art (fashion, music, performance etc) are systematically brutally bludgeoned, beaten, shot and buried into the cinders of society at the hands of those who clearly swore to protect their own interests and bigotries.
The horrific story that unfolds actually happened, elements were created based on the statements of witnesses and court evidence, but even minor creative license doesn’t distract from the raw humanitarian horror that is presented to us.
Attempting to follow and achieve the American Dream, we follow the members of The Dramatics (Algee Smith playing lead singer Cleveland Larry Reed has the voice of heaven) as they try to get a slot at a gig where Motown bosses frequent, and may hopefully sign them. Despite the unmitigated joy, celebration and excitement that is happening inside the venue, days old riot rages outside on the streets of Detroit, itself having started after police harassment of black folk at a party. It is 1967, it is both amazing and terrifying times.
Under orders from the police, the riot halts the gig, resulting in everyone being evacuated. The band gets separated amongst the rioting, a couple finding refuge in The Algiers Motel. What initially seems like an oasis of calm in a desert of flames soon becomes engulfed, with sanity being the first thing to be incinerated.
Some very ill judged but understandable drunken revelry results in the motel being surrounded by the national guard and the local phenomenally racist police, stunningly encapsulated by Will Poulter playing fictional cop Krauss. Poulter is in Oscar winning territory here such is his depraved portrayal.
What unfolds just has to be experienced, not written about. With a sterling cast on amazing form to carry the story/nightmare along, the events of the Algiers are rightly intense and distraught, it truly is the descent of Man.
Playing the part of a local security guard, John Boyega is also on great form, his character isn’t in it too much, and hasn’t much to say, but when he is and does, it reminds you of Denzel Washington in his finest moments.
There’s such intensity during these never ending moments of relentless madness that it’s rightfully hard to take, you’re not supposed to be able to take it, it shouldn’t be happening. It’s also right that it’s being showed. This must never happen again despite the apparent/clear desires of the current President.
Though necessary, the power of the movie significantly dilutes as the story follows the outcome of the tragedy. There’s no way that it could be a movie of equal parts given what had happened, but when it’s good, it’s phenomenal.
The movie and everyone involved can hold their heads high in what they’ve achieved here, by any means necessary, these stories must be told, so that they stay as stories and not premonitions.
8/10 ‘Detroit’ is out now.