***No plot spoilers***
I was 15 years old in 1967, old enough to be aware of the riots that happened at the time in that American city. Those events were later the inspiration for a David Bowie song too, ‘Panic In Detroit’. (1973)
Kathryn Bigelow is a film-maker with style and class. I liked her films ‘Near Dark’, and ‘Blue Steel’, as well as ‘The Hurt Locker’. So when I heard about her latest film, I bought it on DVD, and have just sat and watched it.
It’s a long film, not much short of two and a half hours. The first half sets the scene. Riots develop after the police break up an illegal drinking den and arrest everyone they find inside, including some recently-returned Vietnam veterans. The rioting soon turns into widespread looting and arson, with the authorities losing control of the streets, and resorting to calling in the National Guard to keep order. A curfew is imposed, thousands arrested, and many killed. This part has a documentary feel, much like watching news reports, or fly on the wall filming with police. This is aided in part by occasional use of actual footage from 1967, and contemporary commentaries too.
It is during this section that we meet our collection of disparate characters. A few edgy, racist cops, keen to shoot first and ask questions later. Four young men in a vocal group, The Dramatics, ( a real group) keen to get a recording contract. A black security guard, a man working two jobs, and being called in to protect shop premises from being looted. Two young white women visiting from Ohio, staying at a cheap motel and being very friendly with all the other (mostly black) guests. These are the characters who will all finally come together at the Algiers Motel, on a fateful night at the height of the riots.
The second section of the film looks at the build up to the events at the Algiers, and the nightmare that unfolds in its small rooms, and claustrophobic hallway. When one guest jokingly fires a starting pistol to panic the National Guard, police and troops converge on the motel, fearing a sniper is in one of the rooms. They round up all those inside, and the cops line them up to interrogate them. Beatings and shootings follow, with the attitude of the police made worse by finding the two white girls in the company of black men. Remembering this is 1967, racist language and behaviour abounds, and some very unpleasant treatment is dished out to the hapless suspects.
The last part of the film deals with the issues following that night. The trial of police officers involved, the framing of innocent people, and the post-traumatic problems that some survivors are left with. American justice is badly served, and the viewer is left with no doubt that the authorities handled the situation very badly.
So, is it any good? It is very good in fact, though perhaps not as wonderful as some reviews would have me believe. The sets and costumes all feel authentic, and the feel of the 1960s is meticulously portrayed, including an evocative soundtrack of Motown music. I hardly recognised any of the cast, and that is a good thing, as it helped me to believe in their characters. Scenes at the motel are suitably tense and worrying, and the actors cast as very nasty out of control police officers do an excellent job.
Definitely worth watching.