Detroit: Battle of Algiers

(USA, 143 min.)
Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, Writ. Mark Boal
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Anthony Mackie, Hannah Murray, Kaitlin Dever, Nathan Davis, Jr., Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, John Krasinski
eOne Films
What a weekend to see Detroit. The morning of the screening, Twitter was ablaze with disgusting and appalling images of white supremacists, Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and other varieties of deplorable trash marching in a kind of #WhiteLivesMatter rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Emboldened by the idea that more rights for others means fewer rights for them, these pitchforking wielding racists leave one wondering if the land of Lady Liberty will ever find peace.

The question resonates strongly in Kathryn Bigelow’s outstanding and harrowing Detroit. It’s an incendiary—if flawed—piece with which one may interrogate the USA’s cultural inertia. This dramatic interpretation of an incident in which three unarmed Black men were murdered by police at the Algiers Motel in Detroit on July 25, 1967 during the 12th Street Riots  presumably gets a retrospective inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and riots and protests in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown. The fact that this story is set fifty years in the past is troubling since it could easily be a contemporary tale.

Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty/ Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal represent the night through a meticulously researched effort that draws upon documents, testimonies, interviews, and creative interpretations. The battle of Algiers doesn’t happen until Detroit at least hits the forty-minute mark, yet Bigelow doesn’t spend too much time outlining the full history of race in America that precipitated the violence. That task requires a textbook. Instead, Detroit provides an animated preamble that notes a migration of Black Americans from the South to the North in hopes of jobs and opportunities. The factories of Detroit promised prosperity more than the cotton fields of the South did, but the changing urban landscape inspired a white flight as Caucasians fled to the suburbs in a conservative moral panic.

Bigelow and Boal use the first act of Detroit to put the audience in the mindset of someone trying to survive the tense urban jungle. A raid on a Black speakeasy shows an overaggressive police force and the unrest of the Black population as crowds gather around the paddy wagons to witness their neighbours hauled away for serving liquor without a license. Then some dizzying minutes later, the streets are on fire, the neighbourhood is under siege, and looters, cops, state troopers, and security guards are in a small-scale war.

Cut to a fancy theatre in which Detroit’s citizens escape the heat. Fred (Jacob Latimore) hurries backstage to join his friend Larry (Algee Smith) and his band The Dramatics as they ready for a set that could land them a Motown record. They never get to play for the crowd, however, since rioting forces the audience and the band to vacate the theatre.

Once on the streets, The Dramatics realise that a pack of five Black men in snazzy suits equals a gang in the minds of cops with Billy bats. They split and Fred and Larry take refuge at the Algiers—a shabby little motel that costs eleven bucks a night and boasts a freewheeling atmosphere where young folks sip cheap liquor by the pool as the world around them burns.

Leading up to the fateful night, Detroit also introduces Krauss (The Revenant’s Will Poulter), a trigger-happy cop who sees the riots as open season on Blacks. He introduces himself by shooting a Black man in the back for leaving a store with two bags of groceries—there’s no reason to think he didn’t pay for them—and then playing dumb when the homicide detectives call him out for his racist actions. This guy has many deeply rooted issues. The cops in Detroit don’t wave Confederate flags, wear white hoods, or brandish swastikas and they don’t need to in order to convey their sense of white supremacy. Poulter gives a fearlessly committed performance as the volatile racist Krauss and Bigelow’s direction restrains the toxic character from resembling a monster. Audiences will remember this villain because he is so unsettlingly believable.

The film also presents a key player in the Algiers incident, a security guard named Dismukes (John Boyega from the new Star Wars reboots) who straddles the difficult task of a witness to violence against his fellow Blacks while also trying to keep the peace with the whites from the law. His first effort to play peacekeeper brings about a slur of “Uncle Tom” from a teen who escapes a beating. His second effort to be pragmatic occurs later in the night when he becomes a powerful witness to the events.

These characters and others converge at the Algiers when police respond to gunshots they presume to be from a sniper firing at the force from the motel’s windows. Krauss and his minions storm the building in an overzealous fire of fury that leaves one unarmed motel resident dead. What follows is an excruciating dramatization of the torturous interrogation practices used to find the alleged sniper and his weapon.

The cops don’t find a weapon, but one room yields two young white women (Hannah Murray and Kaitlin Dever) lying on the floor with their hands on their heads alongside a Black man (Anthony Mackie). This interracial mingling makes the cops irate and escalates the machismo of the goons with the guns. Detroit feels as if it plays out in agonising real time once Krauss rounds up the surviving Algiers residents, including Fred and Larry, against a wall for interrogation. The brutality of the line of questioning brings one gut punch after another as the situation spirals out of control. The torture and coercion reach their peak when Krauss escalates the interrogation to a tactic that involves pulling the residents one by one into a private room, pretending to shoot them, and ordering them to play dead with the threat that the next bullet will be for real. The tension of Detroit is almost unbearable as one watches and knows that someone will inevitably make good on Krauss’s promise.

Bigelow thrusts one into the war zone and makes one witness the violence on a visceral level: regardless of how one judges Bigelow and Boal’s version of the story, Detroit makes one empathise with the gross violations of personal and civil rights. The editing by William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon respects the survivors by carefully avoiding a sensational rendering of the violence without denying it, either, as the excellent ensemble cast creates fleshed out characters who sweat with fear and fortitude. Barry Ackroyd’s intensely perceptive cinematography draws upon documentary and verité aesthetics to place the viewer in the paralysing psychological hell that one might experience as a witness such an ordeal. As one watches resident upon resident endure the torture of the police’s interrogation tactics, one struggles to grasp what one might say or do in a similar situation, since every viable outcome seems to barter one life for another to satiate the bloodlust of Krauss and company.

The film is so nerve-wracking, urgent, and emotional that one wishes it ended as soon as the mess at the Algiers concluded. Instead, Detroit offers an unnecessary third act that swiftly depicts the sad trial of the parties charged in the incident. Detroit almost needs the full running time of O.J: Made in America to provide the full scope of the story and the complex history of race relations it entails, while also giving audiences a chance to recover between episodes. Without the benefit of a seven-and-a-half hour running time, though, the film stumbles by trying to cover too much terrain. A title card might have offered a stronger effect, since the comparatively procedural nature of the aftermath simply doesn’t have the same power of the excellent drama that precedes it.

Whatever faults one finds with Detroit, however, the film’s relevance and significance more than compensates for them.  The murder of unarmed Black men at the hands of hotheaded police is a legacy America knows too well. Detroit anticipates the explosion of racial tensions of its release, and presumably more to come, with its unsettling verité-style depiction of another night of mayhem and police brutality in a justice system with faulty scales.

Detroit is now playing in theatres.