Detroit in 1967 became a national talking point in the United States when the simmering tensions among the black community there, packed into what was effectively a ghetto in the city as the whites had moved to the suburbs, erupted into violence on a massive scale as disenfranchised locals took the streets and began to take out their anger on both their environment and the emergency services and cops who were trying to contain the situation. As public leaders tried to talk them down, the denizens refused to be cowed and finally they felt as if they were grabbing the attention of the wider world, and just as happened in other America cities, the riots continued, setting the races against one another...
That theme of racial violence born of prejudice and ignorance was an important one in director Kathryn Bigelow's factually-based drama, especially since she and her screenwriter Mark Boal, marking their third collaboration, were inspired by the tensions between the police and the African American community in more modern times, warning us this had occurred before and was not going away any time soon. Some would point out that the black members of society were more likely to murder each other than the police were to shoot them, but that failed to take into account the fact that cops were not employed to gun citizens down, they were supposed to be keeping the peace.
Certainly there were cases where dangerous criminals were met with force from the authorities, but there had also been high profile stories of innocent black men, and even teenage boys, being killed or injured by apparently trigger happy policemen, so it was little wonder this fed into the resentment many were feeling for those who were intended to protect and serve. However, what were we to make of what Bigelow and Boal adopted as the subject for what was, after all, an event that took in thousands of people in one city? They chose the once-notorious Hotel Algiers incident, a cause celebre for those who felt the police had gotten out of control in their endeavours to keep the peace.
Although now that crime scene was known largely by those who studied the '67 riots if not anyone else, this was a try at bringing it back into the consciousness of those who saw the movie, yet the problem with that was the specific course of events that led to three dead men there had never been entirely ascertained, so there was a sense of filling in the gaps with conjecture here. It was clear there had been a miscarriage of justice on that fateful night, some time into the frame of the disturbances, as no one was ever found guilty of the victims' deaths, despite what we were told here was a blatant act of murder by cops carried away with the atmosphere of terror the riots engendered. It went further than that: the white policemen were fuelling their aggressive racism with the acts of the rioters, justifying their brutality in a get them before they get you manner.
What this did was to take the bigger picture of the region, and gradually focus in towards the hotel, with a scene were the unlicensed Blind Pig bar was cracked down on triggering the mayhem, alighting on to various incidents before drawing together the characters, based in fact, who would be the major players. So precise was that focus that much of the middle section was concentrated on the faces of the actors in one single hallway, as the cops, erroneously believing they had been shot at by a sniper from the establishment, lined up their suspects, including two young, white women, and subjected them to a haranguing series of abuses. Bigelow achieved an intense degree of outrage here, as while there were misbehaviours on all sides, none of the victims, living or dead, at the Algiers deserved what they were inflicted with, and the fear that if the authorities are out of control then nobody can hold them to account was palpable. Very well acted by an excellent ensemble, Detroit really rose or fell depending on whether you thought it was fair or not; it did manage a certain balance, it had to be said. Music by James Newton Howard.
After a starting her career as an artist, this American director and writer moved into the world of film, making her first feature The Loveless in 1982. Five years later came the film which made her name, the modern vampire tale Near Dark, and she followed it up with equally cult-ish thrillers Blue Steel, Point Break and Strange Days. However, The Weight of Water and K-19: The Widowmaker were critical and financial failures, and she fell quiet until Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker over five years later, for which she became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar. She then dramatised the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the controversial Zero Dark Thirty, and tackled the 1967 riots of Detroit. She was once married to fellow director James Cameron, and directed episodes of Wild Palms and Homicide: Life on the Street.