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Clear and present history of cops killing black men

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Detroit (MA). Director: Kathryn Bigelow. Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever. 143 minutes

Scene from DetroitFollowing spates of killings of black American civilians by white police officers in recent (and not so recent) years, Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit is very much of the moment. It is also firmly grounded in true history, its opening act weaving archival news footage with documentary style recreations of the racially charged Detroit 12th Street Riot of July 1967, a moment poised against the rise of the civil rights movement and the increasing disenfranchisement of urban blacks.

A cross-section within a cross-section of that moment in history, the incident at the Algiers hotel — where three citizens, all black, were beaten and killed by Detroit police — forms the centerpiece of Bigelow's film.

Amid the chaos in the early part of the film she picks out a number of characters whose lives are destined to converge later at the Algiers. They include aspiring singer Larry (Smith), his friend Fred (Latimore), and Dismukes (Boyega), a security guard at a local store who recognises the growing danger to black men, and in trying to avoid it becomes complicit in it.

The precise events of that night have never been (as the film points out in a title card at its conclusion) legally established, and so the film's villains of the Detroit Police Department are fictionalised. (There's also a somewhat obligatory #notallcops moment, but we won't get into that here.)

Their ringleader is Philip Krauss (Poulter), a hotheaded and borderline psychotic young cop who is convinced that it is in the black population's interests that the uncivilised violence of their riot be met with the civilised violence of the state. As the film has it, he has already shot and killed a fleeing, unarmed looter on the day he is fated to wind up at the Algiers. As such the film ratchets up plenty of justified outrage before the events at the motel have been arrived at.

The events at the motel are portrayed gruellingly, and at length. The Detroit police are convinced there is a gun on the premises. We know that the most deadly weapon present is a noisy but harmless starter pistol. Most of the patrons present at the motel are young black men, and they endure physical and psychological torture as Krauss and co. try to coerce testimony from them.


"Detroit probes power not just in the context of racial inequality, but more broadly as a psycho-social facet of masculinity in white western society."


Among the patrons are two young white women (Murray and Dever), and their presence at the motel among black men provokes a particular type of ire from Krauss and his colleagues. In this regard the film probes power not just in the context of racial inequality, but more broadly as a psycho-social facet of masculinity in white western society.

To the extent that it does, the justification of one police officer to another — that the actions of a single brutal moment shouldn't dictate the course of your entire life — resonate profoundly with the defence sometimes made for white men who have committed sexual violence against women.

Bigelow's films of recent years (think The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) have had the seemingly oxymoronic attribute of being compelling action films that also largely eschew the tone and taut structure of a typical thriller. Detroit doesn't quite achieve that, its first and third acts (pre and post Algiers) being briefer than the long but gripping middle act, and the third in particular proving to be anti-climactically low-key by comparison; there is a sense that the wrap-up of the fallout could have been trimmed to the benefit of its dramatic punch and so to the benefit of the entire film.

Nonetheless Detroit's contemporary resonances and the skill of execution make this another worthy entry in the ouvre of one of the most compelling popular American filmmakers working today.



Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow, John Boyega, Will Poulter, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty



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Woody Allen quipped when asked by William F Buckley Jr if he felt safe during the Detroit riot: "Well, yes . . . my mother scrawled "SOUL BROTHER"on the wall o the synagogue!"

"John | 08 November 2017  

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