Critical Viewing Journal: Detroit (2017)

Focusing on genre for the next critical viewing, I opted to watched Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit (2017). It was a terrifying, tense watch. I can’t say that I enjoyed it – it’s not a pleasant experience – but it was a very good film indeed.

Bigelow’s film about the 1967 race riots in Detroit starts as a drama, filmed in a naturalistic style, incorporating stock footage of the events for authenticity. When an unlicensed club is raided by the police, they clash with the black community, leading to a riot that lasts for five days and persecution of the entire black community. The drama focuses on race relations, systemic racism, and how easily things can escalate.

When the film settles in to deal with a specific incident at the Algiers Motel, the tone shifts. Already tense throughout, at this point the tension increases dramatically, and the genre switches from drama to horror. The ‘suspects’ for an apparent sniper are lined up against a wall in the motel by racist, brutal police officer Krauss (Will Poulter) and forced to pray out loud for their lives. If they’re not praying loudly enough, Krauss beats them until he can hear them, laughing at their pleas to God. To get them to confess, he plays the ‘death game’ with them, leading them individually in to a room, and faking shooting them if they don’t cooperate, instilling a very real fear of death in the remaining group.

It is almost a monster movie, but at the end it is not the victims who destroy the monster, but the monster who destroys them. In the last few minutes it’s clear that the psychological, if not physical, effects of Krauss and his colleagues’ actions have a lasting effect on his victims lives.

While Jordan Peele describes Get Out (2017) as a ‘social thriller’, rather than necessarily a horror, perhaps Detroit could be considered more of a horror than Peele’s masterpiece. Like Get Out, whilst watching Detroit you get that terrible paranoia that all white people in the film are racist and evil, so even when there are kind acts carried out by some of the white characters, you are on edge at first, wondering what could be the catch.

A terrifying movie, made all the more so from being based on relatively modern history. How much is entirely accurate is unclear: as the captions at the end of the movie attest, the full circumstances of the Algiers Motel incident have never been corroborated, and dramatic license has been used throughout. But nevertheless, it’s an important part of history which feels as though it could all-too-easily repeat itself in the present times.

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