Detroit: A Film with Gritt in its Teeth

A city on fire riots on the streets, a small girl gets shot by the police simply for looking out of her own living room window. No this is not a retelling of some atrocity in Northern Ireland, these are the opening sequences of Catherine Bigelow’s 2017 civil rights era drama Detroit which gives an account of the events that took place in the city of the same name in the summer of 1967.

Scenes from the film are juxtaposed with news reel footage from the time, telling the audience straight away that this story is no fiction giving the film an edgier, more immediate feel, setting the audience right in the situation. A police patrol car is seen doing it’s nightly rounds, talk among the characters, typical of the time might seem shocking to the viewing audience but it’s real. As someone who grew up during the troubles in the North of Ireland the opening scenes of this film are regrettably all too familiar, but thankfully largely a thing of the past.

Each character playing their part sets the scenes that are yet to come with ease. A band, known as the Dramatics are staying in the nearby Algiers Motel. A care-free, or more accurately careless random, thoughtless shot rings out into the night air, the film, and the lives of several of it’s real life characters are about to be dramatically changed forever. As if the films opening scenes haven’t made it tense enough things are about to get a whole lot worse. The police, who have proved to be trigger happy already at this point, arrive at the Algiers Hotel, at this stage John Boyega’s character: who has previously identified himself as a part=time security guard, takes a back seat and remains an observer through the rest of the film.

At first this seems like an odd move by Bigelow as he represents the audience in this regard. As the police get more nervous and impatient to find out who (as they see it) has been shooting at them they get more violent and impatient, this element in particular is reminiscent of many a film about the troubles in Northern Ireland. As the rogue police men get more tense and more violent the cinematography becomes tighter, making the atmosphere of the scenes and therefore the setting, more claustrophobic. From here on in the film focuses it’s attention on this one location, heightening the drama as the rogue interrogators play a form of Russian roulette with each member of their frightened suspects. The content of the film, namely police brutality among a mostly black audience, along with what few white sympathisers they have, is nothing new. However because of the way it is shot, as well as some exceptional acting by all involved. This one scene, this one location is where all the action takes place and the drama is ratcheted up to it’s fullest. Although the violence at times can feel like a tough watch, it is still within the bounds of realism as the police one by one pick out their would-be interrogation victims.

The action happens with such an intensity that you yourself as the viewer become confused as to who is friend and who is foe. The scenes are shot that tightly and the action, while on one hand is only taking place in mainly one location and also is fast paced, you don’t notice who things slowly develop to their inevitable conclusion. This film is truly a modern day masterpiece of direction and without doubt a tale which needs to be told. There are some excellent performances, among them Leon Thomas, Samira Wiley, Anthony Mackie and John Boyega; albeit in a more lowkey role than we are used to seeing him in. In an era where black lives are supposed to matter, Detroit is an important depiction of how black people were treated as second class citizens and very few white people came to their aid because their were no hashtags and no slogans to wave around.

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