national Arts Festival Banner

Monday, August 21, 2017


A brilliantly made film that on the surface lays bare the vicious racism among the police and, to a lesser extent, the national guard, during the riots. (Review: Patrick Compton - 9)

The Detroit riots may have taken place 50 years ago, but Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, which generates plenty of fear and anger, speaks eloquently of present-day American troubles.

Detroit is the American director’s second quasi-documentary after Zero Dark Thirty, this time focusing on the killing of three African-Americans at the Algiers Motel during the riots that took place in July 1967.

It’s a brilliantly made film that on the surface lays bare the vicious racism among the police and, to a lesser extent, the national guard, during the riots. More seriously, however, it vividly portrays how racism was a structuring fact of American life at the time.

The movie begins with a superb animated sequence that provides an historical context to the Detroit troubles; it then dramatises the incident that began the riots, after the police break up a welcoming home party for a group of returning Vietnam veterans at a “blind pig” unlicensed after-hours bar. As the revellers are thrown into police vans a bottle is thrown, and all hell then breaks loose. Within a week, 43 people had been shot dead, 1189 injured, 7000 arrested and 2509 businesses or homes looted or burned.

Bigelow’s regular scriptwriter, Mark Boal, makes it clear that that the incident at the blind pig was the last straw for the city’s black inhabitants who had suffered victimisation for years.

The extent of the problem is symbolised by the Algiers killings which form the film’s central narrative plank and a horror movie all its own within the wider context of the film. The police break into the motel’s annexe after responding to fears of sniper fire from the building and there follows a reign of terror during the night when a number of innocent people are tormented – and three killed – by a group of racist cops.

The film is, however, not simply a blow by blow description of what happened, either at the Algiers or elsewhere. The action is bookended by a mini-drama that took place with a (real life) Motown group called The Dramatics who got sucked into the riots. In many ways, the climax to the film with the lead singer in the group (well played by Algee Smith) gives the movie a sweeter aftertaste than you might otherwise have expected.

The movie’s cast is led by John Boyega who gives an impressively powerful performance as a reserved black security guard, Dismukes, who is an observer, albeit a largely helpless one, during the Algiers nightmare. The cops, played by Will Poulter, Ben O’Toole and and Jack Reynor, are suitably hateful.

Bigelow meshes documentary footage of the riots with fictional dramatisations of what they calculate actually happened at the motel. Sadly, aside from the sub-plot about the music group, there are no hopeful endings here, with the legal aftermath simply confirming the racist character of 1960s’ America.

Detroit is a movie Donald Trump should see in this time of Black Lives Matter, although one hesitates to predict that his reaction would be an appropriate one. For the rest of us, Bigelow's film is a must-see, and with any luck a local film-maker will be inspired to follow in her footsteps with a similar offering relating to the Marikana massacre.

Detroit opened in Durban on August 18. – Patrick Compton