Lucy: I’ve never been to a film before where the audience has been in complete silence as the credits rolled. Not even a whisper.
Louise: I’m still speechless the morning after. This is going to be a difficult review to write.
Lucy: Well the film is directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal who previously collaborated on the war films Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker.
Louise: So it was never going to be a light-hearted romp for the whole family.
Lucy: No way! Based on the 1967 riots in Detroit, the film focuses mainly on the events at the Algiers Motel that ended in the deaths of three black teens.
Louise: Nothing was sugar-coated and there was no Hollywood happy ending, it was just raw tragedy. At least a solid hour of the film was graphic police brutality and torture. If that wasn’t enough, what made it even more difficult to watch was knowing it was real. The fact that it made us so uncomfortable, two white women from New Zealand who were born over 30 years after the events portrayed, is a testament to Bigelow’s ability to immerse the viewer in the sickening reality of the story. It was more terrifying than any horror film I’ve ever seen.
Lucy: I’ve never been so affected by a film before in my life. I wanted to cry and vomit and look away but I’m so glad I never did. You could see how Bigelow’s history with war films paid off here. The emphasis she puts on capturing the emotion rather than the most artistic shot made it impossible to shy away from the brutality. Then to be constantly cut with real newsreels and photographs of the actual event, Bigelow never gives the audience a chance to forget that this is real.
Louise: I wanted to look away too, although it would have filled me with guilt knowing how privileged I am to have that choice. People of colour don’t have that luxury.
Lucy: Definitely! Which is why this film is so necessary. I think my favourite part of the film was the beginning, where we are given the history of the urbanisation of Detroit, linking the events in the film to the slave trade. With the apt timing of the film, following many high profile police shootings of black men in the United States, Bigelow and Boal are making a statement that this isn’t one event but a case study in a long history of systematic racism that is still very prevalent today.
Louise: Following the introduction, the first 30 minutes of the film featured various scenes around Detroit, related only in that they showed heightening racial tension leading to the riots, but with no narrative or character links between them. This made it difficult to follow at first, because it wasn’t clear where the main story was, but those scenes were crucial in contextualising the events that followed.
Lucy: It really gave the audience an idea of how widespread racism is and how it affects people in so many different ways. It’s not just the violent, loud racist that is at fault but everyone who stands by and allows it to happen. Though Bigelow and Boal did an amazing job it’s important to note that the two people with the most creative control on a film about racism are white. In a world where we are so lacking in diversity it’s great to see so many people of colour in a film but disappointing when that representation does not translate off screen. It seems though that Bigelow is very aware of this as in an interview she admits, “I thought, ‘Am I the perfect person to tell this story? No. However, I’m able to tell this story, and it’s been 50 years since it’s been told.”
Louise: It would ideally be written and directed by people of colour, but I’m glad Bigelow and Boal used their position to tell the stories of the less privileged. Based on how authentic the film felt, I have no doubt a lot of research went into it.
Lucy: Definitely! Overall I think everyone on the film did an amazing job and it is such an important film to see. I would caution people though, as the violence is very difficult to watch and it is not for the faint of heart. For me it was a 9/10, probably the most important film I have ever seen.
Louise: I’ll give it an 8/10. It was incredible in its storytelling and cinematography, and the way it laid bare the horrific reality of systemic racism is so important. At the same time, it was deeply disturbing and could be triggering for people who have witnessed or experienced abuse. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I won’t be surprised when it gets a few well-deserved Oscar nods this awards season.