Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenwriter: Mark Boal
Runtime: 143 mins.
Australian Release Date: 9 November 2017
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 24 October 2017.
We know that director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are a formidable team from their previous partnerships on The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Both films deal with the complexity and horror of war and, in their latest utterly compelling collaboration, the Oscar-winning duo drops their audience slap bang into the middle of another kind of war zone - the summer of 1967 in Michigan. It may have been ‘the summer of love’ in San Francisco but it sure as hell wasn’t in Detroit. On the contrary, the city was in chaos and on fire, caused by rioting due to black/white racial tension and racist behaviour by the police force of the period. This piece of history was covered by the international press, leading as it did to the deaths of 43 people, hundreds injured and 1400 buildings burned, but news of the particular incident revealed in Detroit was swamped by the larger events taking place around it. The story is unbelievably heartbreaking, particularly when you can draw parallels with the abuse and disenfranchisement still perpetuated on African Americans today.
We bear witness to the backstage preparation of an up-and-coming group of young African American singers called The Dramatics, who are about to perform as part of a Soul Review at a downtown theatre when the performance is abruptly cancelled. A riot has started and everyone is urged to go home and get off the streets. Not being locals two of the group, Fred (Jacob Latimore) and Larry (Algee Smith), decide to spend the night at the nearby Algiers Motel where a celebration for a recently returned Vietnam vet, Greene (Anthony Mackie), is taking place. The motel is mainly patronised by African Americans, but two white girls from out of town, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), are also enjoying the party. When one of the revellers fires a starter’s pistol from an upstairs window it creates panic in the streets below where the National Guard and the police are gathered. When a posse of white cops led by a virulently racist officer (Will Poulter) arrives to investigate, it comes replete with tensed-up fear and bravado. As the ensuing drama unfolds the level of brutality and persecution of the inhabitants escalates. Meanwhile, a black security guard from across the road, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), is attempting to placate the situation by offering the cops refreshments and generally keeping a lid on the tense atmosphere. Melvin’s character presents a real dilemma as you question why a black man would allow such behaviour to continue, seeing how racist the cops are. And this is the point, for if you place yourself in that situation and decide what action is the best for survival, you begin to understand that Melvin has been here before and is not taking any chances.
The situation at the Algiers resulted in the death, intimidation and persecution of a number of people and eventually led to a criminal trial. The leader of the rogue officers, Krauss (Poulter), was chilling in his utter contempt for his fellow man. We are given a glimpse of his character in an earlier incident, but nothing prepares you for the extent of his psychopathic behaviour. Poulter is scarily brilliant as this vicious creature; expect an Oscar nom this awards season. Mention must also be made of the other actors, particularly Latimore, Smith and Mackie, who are equally compelling. Criticism is being levelled against the depiction of this violent piece of forgotten history by a white (and dare I say, female) director. However, the most important issue here is that the truth is out and it ain’t pretty. Bigelow knows her stuff and together with Boal’s carefully researched script, Barry Ackroyd’s brilliant in-your-face cinematography and sharp editing by William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, this is indeed a worthwhile piece of film making. It clearly illustrates the lyrics to one of The Dramatics’ hits, “…some people have hearts of stone, some people are up to no good.” Now ain’t that the truth and ain’t it a shame.