US (2017) Dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow takes us back to 1967 for a dramatisation of the infamous 12th Street Riots in Detroit, and a look at a shameful incident that will live in infamy.

A raggedy animated preface proffering a brief history of the struggles for 20th century black Americans brings us to 1960’s Detroit where a group of black war veterans are enjoying a celebration party held in an unlicensed club. The police arrive, led by a black detective, to shut the party down but the aggression and rough handling of the partiers by the white officers upsets the locals.

In protest an angry mob hits the streets, sending the police running when it evolves into looting and property damage. Attempts to clam the mood fail and the tensions rise again, leading to Governor George W. Romney to authorise army presence in the streets to maintain order. However with many racist white police officers abusing their positions in their treatment of black people, Detroit borders on becoming a war zone.

The scope for a gritty and explosive drama based on this tumultuous period in Detroit’s history should be obvious to anyone but Bigelow chooses to focus on just one incident. Given the number of events open for cinematic interpretation Bigelow made a brave but pertinent choice given the current climate in Hollywood regarding the issue of race, and one that may reopen old wounds but prove its socio-political value.

Per the disclaimer ahead of the closing credits, the basic facts are steeped in reality but remain vague, for reasons that become clear by the end, so this presentation is openly heavily dramatised based on available documents and testimonies from survivors and willing participants of those involved.

Known as the Algiers Motel Killings, this tragic event took place on July 25th-26th 1967 when three black youths were shot by white police officers. To set the scene, trigger-happy officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) has already shot one black man dead caught robbing a shop but since his superiors are unsure to lay a murder charge, he is allowed to continue working.

Meanwhile singing group The Dramatics see their concert debt aborted when police shut the show down due to the riots outside. On the way home their bus is attacked and the passengers are forced to get off and flee, with singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and best friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) separated from the others during the chaos.

Seeking refuge at the Algiers Motel they meet two white girls visiting from Ohio, Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) and Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) who then join some friends of theirs, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) and Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.). As a prank, Carl fires a starter pistol at the National Guards outside the hotel and the police are called, with Krauss and colleagues Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole) first to respond.

What follows is the ugliest, harrowing and tense forty minutes of sheer shameful, racially motivated abuse of power, but also a stunning piece of cinematic storytelling. To avoid spoilers I won’t go into specifics but wherever the line is between fact and dramatisation, we can only hope it is not as blurred as we find ourselves fearing it to be watching this.

It needs mentioning about black security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) who was working at a nearby store and was at the scene when the furore broke out. His role is somewhat intermediary, trying to help the kids without upsetting Krauss. Dismukes seems naïve about Krauss acting on racial motives but is nonetheless aware of his brutal methods.

Any adjective you can come up with feels inadequate to describe the way Krauss and co. behave, and while we know that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have added plenty of garnish to the fundamental details, we are still left horrified to witness this atrocity play under what are fairly baseless circumstances, and certainly an overreaction to what was something undeniably dumb.

Racial slurs are aplenty as is physical abuse and mental torture, but most shocking of all is the intransigent pursuit of a false truth and any lack of awareness by Krauss that he is not in any way wrong in his actions. The invented sophistry just to mete out more punishment – accusing a black war veteran of being a pimp by being with two white girls – beggars belief yet we do actually believe it all the same.

The story continues long after the night of this incident which is where the film truly angers, pointing a scornful figure at a biased white society – in this instance it’s all true. However what is missing is a central justification for this whole situation in the first place beyond established racial oppression. We see how it got to the stage it but not really why, insofar why the immediate reaction to the police’s actions is to tear up their town.

Of course Bigelow wants to press our buttons and does so masterfully; it would take a hardened soul not to feel ashamed and enraged at what is shown here, but unlike say, Selma, the tension goes to 0-apoplectic far too quickly. But with a lot of ground to cover, maybe it was a case of taking the foundation as read and getting into the heart of the scenario.

Using a cinema vérité approach with the busy moving camera and absence of emotive musical soundtrack grounds the presentation, the gritty unease and febrile horror of the middle section palpably uncomfortable for the audience as for the players. The cast are all on target with cheeky faced Brit Will Poulter again showing his incredibly depth and maturity as Krauss, while fellow Brit John Boyega as Dismukes is literally and figuratively his inverse character wise.

For all its didactic folly, Detroit is 2 ½ hours of cinematic discomfort but has every right to be given the ignominy of its subject. Urgent and compulsive viewing.