A film to be endured as much as enjoyed, Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit is a brutal, engrossing recreation of horrific events in America's not so distant past, the Detroit race riots of 1967. Yet other reviews will tell you why this film is good and exhausting simultaneously. I will talk instead about how it made me reflect.
As I watched Detroit, what came to mind was a conversation I had with a couple of co-workers several years ago; an opinion was given by one religiously pious colleague that what her country (Senegal) needed wasn't democracy but one good man to control and make decisions, and lead the country along the good path. The other colleague – a friend, called Corinne – said that kind of power was too much for one person.
Watching the police brutality in Detroit, I was reminded of Corinne's perspective and how she'd summed up the risks with power and authority. People are capable of dehumanising others, of harbouring perspectives that – with a weapon in hand – can lead to inhumanity, done in the name of humanity. I will cut across the taboo of criticising police officers and the army; both forces are capable of acting as a repository for the kind of people you'd least want holding a gun, a type who desperately desires to be respected by others through the affirming power of the uniform and the legitimacy of violence. Detroit captures this, Will Poulter's baby-faced Office Krauss in particular combining zeal with a psychopathic dis-attachment in hurting people different to himself in order to confirm his own worldview. On both sides in this movie, in fact, there are the indifferently trigger-happy or violent.
It's a reminder that the foundation of law and order is dialogue and the attempt to understand each other. When this is absent and empathy is gone, and when an entire social group is viewed with suspicion, what remains is gun-wielding officers of various levels of maturity and judgement, getting high on their power over other, crooked sub-humans – as they perceive them.Detroit is a scary movie because it's easy to imagine this kind of incident happening again, particularly when we live in a society that vilifies certain ethnicities and/or social groups. I won't refer in detail to the current febrile atmosphere in America, where the 'concerns' of an embittered white minority are indulged by the President of the United States; such incidents as Detroit 1967 could happen in the UK – why not? A largely right-wing media that gives the rich a free ride while targeting the less empowered as the reason for a country's malaise. Films like Detroit are courageous in what they remind us about the fallibility of our institutions, and the ease with which we can become inhuman towards those whom we vilify or fear.