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New Release Review - DETROIT

detroit movie review
Dramatisation of the 1967 siege of a Detroit motel by cops.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Jacob Latimore, Hannah Murray, Jack Reynor, John Krasinski

detroit movie poster


Few American filmmakers can rival Kathryn Bigelow when it comes to constructing a thrilling action sequence. Who can forget that great foot chase in what for many fans is still her signature movie, Point Break? That sequence famously ends with Patrick Swayze's bank robber mounting a wire fence, offering Keanu Reeves' undercover cop a clear shot to take down the criminal he's been assigned to foil. Unable to shoot an unarmed foe in the back, Keanu famously instead fires his gun into the air.

Early in Bigelow's latest, Detroit, the director calls back to that sequence with a foot chase between a fleeing black looter and Will Poulter's unhinged cop Philip Krauss. Once more, the scene ends with the fleeing man mounting a wire fence, but this time the cop in pursuit has no compunctions about shooting an unarmed man in the back. With one gunshot, Bigelow recontextualises her earlier movie as a story of white privilege.

detroit movie

Bigelow says more about race in America with this brief moment than in the rest of Detroit's 130 minutes. As we've come to expect from mainstream American movies that tackle the subject of race, Detroit is designed to make white middle class viewers feel better about themselves. When it comes to racism, us white people sure love to point the finger at an 'other'. Europeans say "it's not us, it's the Americans." Americans say "it's not us, it's the Southerners." Clinton voters say "it's not us, it's the Trump voters." And most of all, the middle class like to say "it's not, us, it's those uneducated working class brutes."

Detroit opts for the latter stance, literally presenting its white collar whites (the senior officials in the Detroit Police Department) as a group of enlightened men burdened with a bunch of mouth-foaming blue collar (the beat cops) racists. Racism is a working class disease, the film suggests, refusing to acknowledge that poorly educated thugs like Krauss are enabled by the educated powers that be. Krauss and his colleagues kill black people because they're racists, and because they're sociopaths, but mainly because they can. Had the Detroit PD really been run by men as illuminated as those portrayed here, a movie like Detroit, which details the murder of three black men during a night of intimidation by a group of white cops, wouldn't exist.

detroit movie

By deflecting racism as solely an issue of police brutality, Detroit's social myopia will have anyone who belongs to a minority groaning at its ignorance. At one point a young white girl asks a black man what it's like to be black. He frames his answer purely in the context of fear of physical violence from the police, claiming it's like living with a gun permanently pointed at his head. While this is undoubtedly part of the black experience in America, it's merely one form of racism. The character never mentions the sleep lost wondering if that smiling white person who takes your CV actually bothers to read your qualifications or simply tosses it in the waste paper basket. He never mentions being forced to question whether that restaurant really was booked out. There's no acknowledgement of the feeling you get when a shop assistant puts your change on the counter, despite you holding out an open palm. That's because mention of such less dramatic forms of bigotry would force the filmmakers to admit that racism is far more complex than a blue-clad thug cracking a shotgun butt against a black man's head. Detroit's facile tag-line is 'change the conversation', but it's not willing to initiate a truly honest exchange.

detroit movie

While Detroit may be an offensively classist and ignorantly simplistic exploration of American prejudice, it's one hell of an effective horror movie. Hitchcock claimed his motivation for making Psycho was seeing low budget exploitation movies and wondering what one might be like if it were made by a great filmmaker. Detroit gives the impression that Bigelow had a similar thought. It's an exceptionally well-crafted riff on '70s home invasion movies like Robert Endelson's highly controversial Fight for Your Life (a truly ballsy take on racism), or Ruggero Deodato's House on the Edge of the Park (a movie that certainly doesn't let its middle class audience off the hook), but here the victims never get their revenge. It's a reverse Assault on Precinct 13, with the cops posited as the villains. It's the best movie about cartoon white racist cops terrorising thinly sketched black men and their woke white girlfriends you'll ever see, and Poulter gives a performance that transcends its trashy treatment.

For close to two hours, Bigelow puts us through hell, her villains ironically using methods not too dissimilar from those of the heroes of her previous film, Zero Dark Thirty. You want the terror to stop, but not just yet, as you can't take your eyes off the horror, because in the hands of a master genre filmmaker like Bigelow, it's thrilling. Not since Clint Eastwood's 1983 Dirty Harry sequel Sudden Impact has a Hollywood movie so successfully demonstrated an understanding of what makes exploitation cinema work. America's complex racial issues deserve far better treatment than this, but as a fan of exploitation cinema, I'd be lying if I claimed Detroit wasn't one of the most impactful experiences I've had in a cinema in 2017. I can separate a badly rendered film from a well made movie. How's that for white privilege? 

Detroit is in UK/ROI cinemas August 25th.



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