This one has been a long time coming. I sat on this for a while before really cracking down and editing it. I’m not sure why I hadn’t thought to do this sooner. As a film student, I’m encouraged to think more critically about the media I consume. What better way to do that than to write about it on a blog you promised yourself to keep? This is Thoughts and First Impressions: a segment on this space where I talk about film, television, books, or music in a way that’s either supremely subjective or an feeble attempt at intellectual objectivity. Forgive my tonal inconsistencies, I think that’s what I was going for.
Image credit to Variety.
Dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Hannah Murray, Anthony Mackie
I walked into the Picturehouse Central half-asleep and drizzled in rainwater. I had landed in London two nights ago and got my tickets for this Preview not long after that. At the time, the film was not scheduled to be released until the 25th. I just couldn’t wait and hopped at the first chance to see it.
I had heard about Detroit originally as the Untitled Detroit Riots Project by Kathryn Bigelow. I remember seeing birds-eye view set pictures of Will Poulter and Jack Reynor chasing a man (Tyler James Williams) down the street. I didn’t really know much about the rebellions in 1967 or what happened at the Algiers Motel. I thought the release was very timely, it premiered in the US on July 28th, 50 years after the incidents themselves, and the UK premiere was a few days after the incidents at Charlottesville.
Detroit is a period crime-drama film based on the Algiers Motel incident during the 12th Street Riots in 1967. A group of African-American men, including two members of the R&B group, The Dramatics, and an Air Force Veteran, along two white women were held hostage by a group of police officers investigating reports of shots fired at the motel. As a result of intimidation tactics gone wrong, three men lost their lives and the perpetrating officers never saw a day in prison.
The film opens with a short animation or slideshow of paintings to contextualize the tensions briefly. It was informative, but lacklustre (in my own, insignificant opinion) in comparison to the rest of the film’s visuals. We’re then taken to a police raid of private party, in what seems to be an unlicenced club, celebrating the return of black war veterans. Outraged by the arrests, the local community form mobs of people begin looting, and throwing rocks at police officers thus starting the 12th Street Riot. The next day, two police officers on patrol chase down a looter, with Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) going as far as fatally shooting him. We’re then introduced to The Dramatics, an R&B group set to perform in a hall in hopes of scoring a record deal. Their performance was cancelled due to the riots and two members Larry (Algee Smith), and Freddy (Jacob Latimore) seek refuge in the Algiers motel. Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is a private security guard hired to guard a grocery store, he befriends some members of the national guard stationed outside and is suddenly pulled into responding to shots fired at the Algiers.
As far as visuals go, Bigelow and Director of Photography Barry Ackroyd utilised a lot of handheld, shaky camera movement, and shots set up from behind windows or railing bars create a very intense, anxiety-inducing environment. It had an immersive and unforgiving Funny Games quality to it that reduced the audience to powerless bystanders; the interrogation game Krauss and his goons carry out before it all goes horribly wrong reminded me a lot of the aforementioned Haneke film, as the audience are asked to glue their eyes to the screen and are also begged to look away. Colouring-wise, I thought it was really interesting how they paired a lot of deep warm tones, as with the fires from the riots, the motel’s lighting and decor, with colder palettes once danger rolls around (the blue police uniforms, the dark of the night, even the blood looked cold).
Let’s get into the performances we’re going to be hearing about all the way through to Oscar season. From what I gather from the Q&A panels they’ve had to promote this film; Bigelow gave the actors a lot of freedom and created a safe space for them to explore their own performances. My darling peanut John Boyega; Melvin Dismukes, God bless this man. There’s a sweet scene where Dismukes attempts to protect a young black man from being questioned by the national guard by posing to be his uncle. To me, Dismukes was your way into the film; he was the gateway and your guide. When his hands were tied behind his back (figuratively, obviously), yours were too. Boyega displayed a vulnerability and a maturity I hadn’t seen before. The character was also in a very interesting position: a black man in a uniform. Though the uniform is different from KKKrauss and his boys, there was still connotations of power and mistrust attached to the uniform as a symbol anyway. He was really trying to help and got thrown under the bus and lumped in with the White Devils by the end of it. It was a very blatant illustration of how institutions and its failures contribute largely to the systematic oppression of African-Americans in the United States.
If you know me at all, you’d know that Will Poulter is one of my favourite actors and I admire him greatly. I’m trying really hard to give a nuanced and balanced analysis of all the performances, but I didn’t realise how difficult it is to do so for someone that you, as the kids say, stan. (Re: stan – urban dictionary traces its origins to the Eminem song, Stan, where in Mr. Mathers raps as his number one fan by the name of Stan. I hate that I just rhymed that.)
Philip Krauss as a character is a despicable human being and a disgrace to the force. In several interviews, Poulter had even said he had a very difficult time inhabiting the psychology of the character as there was no way he could empathise with Krauss. However, you can see in his performance that he found a way to expose individuals like Krauss by appealing to something we’re all familiar with: the need to be right. Much like the content floating around in the political aether, it’s become more about who’s right and how far you’ll go to protect your own rather than listening and understanding that we stand from different frames of reference and working towards to find a middle ground. In Krauss’ eyes, he was doing the right thing, which is why we can see him shed no ounce of guilt, and only gets spooked if he’s about to get into trouble. To me, this makes him absolutely menacing. There’s nothing you can do to change his mind because he’s already made up his mind.
Jack Reynor and Ben O’Toole rounded out the group of cops terrorizing the Algiers; their performances managed to stand out amongst and support Poulter’s performance. There was a scene where I think I caught a glimpse of fear in Officer Demens’ (Reynor) eyes, and began to question what it really means to be held accountable for your actions. It’s quite troubling how much insight events in the 1960s can provide to similar events today–for some reason cops are still not being held accountable for the lives they’ve taken claiming “justified use of force”.
Detroit has a great musicality to it I didn’t expect. It’s a stark contrast to all the violence, Algee Smith’s singing voice cuts through the noise so delicately, sending shivers down your spine and awakening goosebumps you didn’t think you’d get. I think it provides a small glimpse of hope in the most dire of situations, and the stark contrast gives the audience room to breathe as well as feeling out how sudden the sequence of events can turn. The second half of the film focuses on how Larry struggles to pursue his singing career after everything that had happened; how injustice and trauma can scar a human being for the rest of their lives. It was heartbreaking to watch Larry and Freddy stick together and then lose each other, as there are so many people out there today going through the same trauma and the same injustice.
I saw some familiar faces I had no idea I was going to see; Leon Thomas III whom I haven’t seen since Victorious, John Krasinski as perhaps one of the most despicable lawyers I’ve ever seen in my life (well done, Jim), and Miguel. Yep. Miguel.
Speaking of musicality, I was really impressed by the sound design. I think this is the year for films making me anxious just by sound design alone. The score was tense, but wasn’t so distracting that it took you away from the visuals. What really stuck out to me was the use of gunshots in the film, particularly in the scenes at the motel. In the plot itself, shots were fired during the interrogation to trick the other suspects into thinking the police had killed them after a useless session. But I noticed how every shot was so deliberate; you didn’t even have to see a gun and your heart rate would spike. It’s like information was being kept from you. You, much like the people in the film, start looking for a gun and thinking the worst.
I was terribly uninformed on the rebellions in ‘67. The film was like a springboard for me to educate myself not only on the events of that period but also to further educate myself on race relations in the US, and inspire me to be more informed on race relations in the UK.
It got me thinking about how racists, or white supremacists are portrayed in fictional media. Whether they’re characters in books, film, or television; I can’t help but be scared and uncomfortable at the thought that someone out there might idolize these characters. Krauss, for example, as I’ve raved on and on about earlier, Poulter delivers an utterly stellar performance. A thought popped in my head a few weeks ago that took shape into the drive as to why I wanted to write this: what if there are people like this character watching this character? What are they thinking? What do you think about when you see yourself represented in media? How does this affect you? These are all questions I can answer when I see, say, Diane Nguyen in BoJack Horseman or Colleen Wing in The Defenders. It scares me a little (read: a LOT) that there might be people out there looking at Krauss or the idea of HBO’s Confederate being like: “Hey! Look! It’s me!” This may be a conversation for a different post.
Overall, Detroit was a rollercoaster of an experience. In true blockbuster fashion, it glued you to your seat, but only to the edge of it. I hope that as viewers we can take away how important it is to talk about issues on race relations instead of awkwardly changing the subject or avoiding it entirely. Detroit is currently in cinemas across the UK.
Reflecting on Writing This Piece:
I think we have a lot more work to do. I think you had some solid points and then didn’t dig into them properly due to some internal pressure you put on yourself to post. Writing whatever this section is may be a terrible excuse to chart growth. Also, as expected, you talked about a bit of everything here and there and proceeded to fan the flames of your Undying Love and Support™ for Will Poulter. Will do better next time. –A