Thursday 31 August 2017

Flame in the streets: "Detroit"

A divided (and apparently divisive) work for a divided moment, Detroit lands among us as a drama that aspires to the look and authenticity of documentary, and a film about black anger and black suffering written by a white man and directed by a white woman. It arrives at the end of what's been the oddest summer season in living memory, tossed into the mix like a Molotov cocktail, some counterblast to the weirdly apolitical Dunkirk (war as immersive, teen-friendly RPG, thus a massive hit): two-thirds of its frames burn at their very edges with the effort exerted by writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow in trying to pin down the specifics of that long hot summer of 1967 during which the titular city fell subject to unrest and was taken over by the National Guard. Whether it was some deliberate, William Castle-ish 4DX gimmick or just an unfortunate aircon malfunction, the heating in the late-August public screening I attended was cranked up to the max; either way, the film scarcely seemed to require it. For much of its running time, Detroit is incendiary enough.

The first thing to be said of Bigelow's film - and my gut feeling is that viewers on both sides of the argument will agree on this, if this point alone - is that it has been composed with this director's now expected virtuosity: you cannot deny Detroit generates a force, even as it begs the question of how (and to what ends) that force is wielded. A prologue skilfully establishes the disrepair most major American inner cities had been allowed to fall into by the closing years of the Sixties, and the specific conditions that fed into the Detroit unrest: a series of heavy-handed police raids on after-hours drinking establishments popular among the black community that led to rioting, looting, then to less scrupulous members of the city's police force taking potshots at looters as though they were the Trump kids on their first safari. Having whipped up a considerable storm, Boal and Bigelow place us at its epicentre: the modestly appointed Algiers Hotel, where on the night of July 25, 1967, a report of shots being fired at police and National Guardsman stationed nearby prompted a cabal of openly racist cops - led, in this iteration, by the composite figure of Will Poulter's Krauss - to storm the premises and subject several black guests, and their (white) female company that night, to what proved a fatally inept interrogation.

The Algiers scenes are the movie's furnace room, and they form an hour of pure ordeal cinema, surpassing even The Hurt Locker's bomb-disposal sequences and Zero Dark Thirty's raid on the Bin Laden compound in their impact. Boal and Bigelow dig their fingernails in at every opportunity by subtly emphasising everybody's position in the food chain: here are young black men and young black women who find themselves entirely at the mercy of white men drunk on the power their badges and guns confer upon them - a power, it becomes apparent, which is wholly disproportionate to their smarts or regard for the niceties of the law. These are the sequences you come away from Detroit remembering, even if Poulter - a useful performer, making much of Boal's carefully codified language (endless, dehumanising "they"s and "you people"s) - still seems somehow five-to-ten years too young to play the entrenched racist-in-chief. He's outplayed by a terrific John Boyega, playing the real-life figure of Melvin Dismukes, a security guard present inside the Algiers that night who found himself having to occupy an impossible position: accused of being an Uncle Tom by the rioters for trying to keep the peace, he strove to fade into the background and intervene whenever the cops were looking the other way, emerging from that night with a measure of triumphs (not least getting away alive) while still being hauled in for questioning as a suspect in the hotel shootings. Here, Boal and Bigelow hit upon a powerful irony: that the same officials who saw nothing but skin tone as the unrest spiralled beyond their control were utterly blind to Melvin Dismukes - his words, his actions, his entire demeanour - when he needed to be seen most.

That sorry lesson alone would be enough to make Detroit a valuable and pertinent document fifty years on from the events it describes, and yet - midway through the film, around the time Krauss's ire had reached its peak - I started to regret just how terse a filmmaker Bigelow had become. In 1995, Bigelow made Strange Days, a post-Rodney King, pre-millennial sci-fi with a plot that hinged upon the shooting of a rapper by racist scions of the LAPD. All the fear and prejudice to be found in Detroit was there channelled into a pulsating genre framework: electric with (not unjustified) paranoia, it wasn't a film so much as a conspiracy theory being laid out - in astonishing Technicolor, and at around 150 beats per minute - by a voice then operating on the fringes of the studio system. Perhaps inevitably, given how jittery L.A. was in the 1990s, that same system buried a film that could well have sparked a revolution in the multiplexes, sending one star (Ralph Fiennes) off to play Voldemort for the next decade-and-a-half, another (Angela Bassett, Oscar-nominated not two years before for playing Tina Turner) into something like limbo, and Bigelow herself off for a rethink before her subsequent evolution into Serious Bigelow. (Her next films were 2000's po-faced The Weight of Water and 2002's leaden submariner K-19: The Widowmaker, neither of which you'd want to return to in any hurry.)

Detroit, which is unmistakably the work of a well-connected industry figure, is weighted with a dread that makes it very much of our present moment, where you'd say the worst looks to have come to pass in America, were there not signs that worse still is yet to come. It's undeniably a weightier achievement than, say, Bigelow's Point Break, an upper-case History Movie doing everything it can with the ample resources it has to set its particular, tragic moment in stone. Yet it's somehow far less dynamic, rewarding or instructive as a motion picture: I left it behind impressed but knowing - as I did when leaving The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty - that I'd have no particular desire to watch it again, which would seem to be a major problem for a film that surely intends to jolt complacent palefaces out of some of their lazier prejudices. Some of the impact is muffled by an extended coda, set in the days, weeks and months after the Algiers shootings, which is applied as one might a wet tea towel to staunch bleeding or smother flames: there is a courtroom drama, and scenes of the survivors to rebuild their lives, as they surely had to, and - at the last - a gospel song, holding out the prospect of delayed peace after two-and-a-bit hours of trial by fire.

For all their good, worthwhile, radical instincts, Boal and Bigelow are adhering to an arc here, building towards a revelation and working through of trauma as surely as they were when Zero Dark Thirty climaxed with the tears rolling down CIA analyst Jessica Chastain's face - and here, as there, some have accused the director of pointing her camera in the wrong direction, of missing something crucial to this unrest. As a stated fan of Bigelow, I'd be less inclined to attribute this to her so-called white privilege than to the sheer scale and ambition of these recent projects, the desire on her and Boal's part to digest a dozen Time and Newsweek articles every time and thereby cover as much ground on a multiplex screen as any American filmmaker now can. Her prowess is such that she's effectively been making three films in one here - the unravelling social tapestry, the site-specific horror movie, and the Big Hollywood History Picture, set out before a final-reel jury - which perhaps explains why Detroit emerges as so expansive, so sprawling and so compromised, at once a lot and not quite enough. For her next trick, if it's not too much of an over-simplification, she should go back to picking one movie, limber up, and direct the hell out of that.

Detroit is now playing in selected cinemas.  

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