* * * *
Detroit is magnificent. Director Kathryn Bigelow and investigative screenwriter Mark Boal have, as with their masterpiece Zero Dark Thirty, presented a historical incident with both clinical precision and political reverberation. They tell their stories coldly so your blood can boil.
Boil it will. Detroit will make you sad and mad as hell. It tells of an incident in the ever-expanding United States Book of Shame that is disgusting, despicable and should have caused uproar, consternation and most importantly, change. Instead it seems to have achieved nothing and has largely been forgotten, while the character of its venality continues to this day across the “united” States.
Contrary to the poster – and, possibly, what you’ve heard – the film is not a detailed rendering of the Detroit riots of July 1967, although those riots form the backdrop, and the swift first act indeed plunges us into the causes of the riots and their outbreak. The meat of the film, however, is a detailed depiction of the “Algiers Motel Incident”, which was a disturbing event that took place involving civilians, police officers, national guardsmen and state troopers on one night of the riots (July 25th). The film’s long second act is a forensic portrayal, almost in real time, of the incident, relying on Boal’s detailed interviews with everyone involved who was willing to talk to him. Legal aspects of the case prevent Boal and Bigelow from naming every character according to their real-life counterpart, but a quick google when you come out of the film will allow you to easily find out everything you need to know. Truman Capote was able to name everyone populating In Cold Blood because the fates of his villains differed to those here, but Bigelow and Boal’s storytelling is not dissimilar to Capote’s famous piece of novelistic journalism, save for being in the form of a two and a half hour film.
It is to Bigelow, Boal and their intrepid producer Megan Ellison’s immense credit that they have spent their time, resources and talent to bring this semi-forgotten episode to light, especially given the state of their nation, and the world. They must have known that the project was unlikely to generate spectacular box office (it’s only made $16million in the US) given its subject matter and the relentlessness of its telling, but they’ve spent years of their lives on it for whomever is willing to listen. You get the sense that this trio really give a shit about what stories they tell (Ellison, who is independently wealthy, ponies up her own money) and we are the benefactors. I was moved, shaken, angered and thrilled by Detroit, the last because it was an American film of substance and ambition, something not widely available so far this year.
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