Detroit first published by RealCrime Magazine
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous two collaborations with writer Mark Boal cast a carefully critical light on the US’s military operations abroad. The Hurt Locker (2008) revealed a soldier’s heroic masculinity to be a pathological addiction, while Zero Dark Thirty interrogated America’s willingness to torture and murder in the name of supposedly higher national values. Their latest collaboration, Detroit, begins with the violent disruption of a party celebrating the return of two soldiers from Vietnam, and later shows a highly awarded veteran (Anthony Mackie) facing the very worst kind of disrespect and discrimination. It also features intimidation, assault, mock executions and straight-up murder. In all these cases, the perpetrators are not themselves military, but rather belong to a different institution, the police – and, crucially, the returned servicemen are black.
Set amid the racially heated 12th Street riots of 1967, Detroit focuses on the Algiers Motel incident, during which three African-American men were shot dead during a police raid. A tense, sweaty affair, shot up close and personal with handheld cameras that capture every panicky moment, the film carefully reconstructs – from meticulous research and gathered testimonies – terrifying outrages committed by three white supremacist police officers who were more or less left to their own devices by other police, national guardsmen and compromised African-American security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). The film then anatomises the flawed investigative and judicial processes that enabled the three policemen to get away with literal murder, and the ramifying damage done both to those who survived the traumatic incident (like up-and-coming Motown singer Larry Reed, played by Algee Smith), and to the friends and families of those who did not. The sight of Dismukes vomiting after seeing the trio’s ringleader Philip Krauss smiling at the trial expresses the sense of disgust that pervades the film.
In other words, Detroit exposes, blow by harrowing blow, ingrained and institutionalised complicity in racism at all levels of society. It is both The Battle of Algiers for America, and an incendiary chapter in a history still unfinished in our own era of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the Black Lives Matter movement that was triggered by their deaths at police hands. “It’s 1967, asshole!”, a character protests at the gross illiberalism of the police. Well, it’s 2017 now, and how much has really changed?
© Anton Bitel