Battle of the Algiers

Fiona and I went to see director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s DETROIT as an anniversary treat (four years since Norman Lloyd married us in a blasphemous midnight nuptial). That was… fun?

One fascinating thing about the film is its patchwork texture — throwing in TV news footage and still photographs to flesh out its period reconstruction of the 1967 Detroit riots. Another is its unorthodox structure, starting with a big picture network narrative, drawing the characters together for a taut, contained hostage situation with protagonists held at gunpoint by cops in the Algiers Motel, then breaking free and trundling along through a protracted, disjointed aftermath that leaves the viewer with no idea where the thing is going or when it will stop. This rather fascinated me, because you rarely encounter that kind of loose, unpredictable shape in this age of rigorous three-act structure movies written according to a manual of somewhat made-up “rules.” I tried to work out whether an alternative approach might have worked better, but as far as I can see, going into flashbacks framed by the trial, etc, would have spun us round into cliché.

To adapt a true incident around which some mystery still lingers (the Wikipedia entry is like RASHOMON, at least as far as the details are concerned), with living participants and the possibility of lawsuits, Boal has fictionalised, creating cop characters with invented names but who commit real crimes. Will Poulter plays the main rogue cop with a compelling psycho stare. This might be controversial, but I don’t think his character is particularly racist. I mean, he’s clearly QUITE A BIT racist — his attempts to compliment John Boyega’s character as being, essentially, superior to most of his race, are sickeningly offensive, though not unusually so for the time. But I don’t think racism is at the root of this character’s murderous behaviour, as portrayed in the film. Power is at the root of it.

We see at least one of the white cops looking disgusted after finding two white girls in a room with some black guys. He’s in thrall to a powerful and corrosive race hatred, and it’s mingled with sexual jealousy. It’s this kind of evil that Poulter’s character exploits, because he can.

The film, during its long, gruelling middle section reminded me of the Stanford Prison Experiment, where students were randomly divided into prisoners and guards, and without clear rules to limit them, the guards quickly descended in barbarous fascism. Here again we have authority figures and their charges, arbitrarily assigned their roles in life (one cop is so dumb he doesn’t even understand the power games and psychological torture he’s participating in), but added to that is the fact that one group is predominantly white and the other mainly black. Well, that’ll give them something to talk about, I expect.

One thing I didn’t understand. As part of its odd mix of textures (Ken Loach’s cameraman Barry Ackroyd alternates between grainy shakicam for the tense confrontations and supersaturated colour for the concert scenes — yes, it’s kind of a musical, too), the film opens with an animation based on Jacob Lawrence’s paintings of the Great Migration that formed Detroit’s ghettos. Captions tell us that the tensions of big-city racism led to an untenable situation where change was inevitable.

What I don’t get is, what change? What we see in this movie feels very current, and relevant to the era of Black Lives Matter. It seems to me that the events portrayed could totally happen today, and the only difference would be the music would be hip-hop not doo-wop and people would have cell phones to film it on.

So, what change?

What change?

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5 Responses to “Battle of the Algiers”

  1. interesting spoke to Becky last night about it and she wasn’t recommending it at all saying the structure was a mess but with one brilliant bit in the middle.. you make me want to go and see it – great anniversary film night choice!!! Also want to see Lucky Logan if you are up for that

  2. “particularly racist”?

  3. The structure is either a mess or brilliantly unconventional/frustrating. I was glad it didn’t end with “cathartic” violence to let us off the hook.

    “Particularly racist” — I take it as read that evrybody’s at least a bit racist, if only in their worst moments. Most of us try to be self-correcting as regards these tendencies. What counts as exceptionally racist varies over time, statistically, and at the same time it’s sort of unchanging: treating people differently or thinking about them differently based on their race is racist, regardless of whether you live in 2017, 1967 or 1867.

    My feeling was that the horrible cop’s racism, though vile by any standards, probably wasn’t particularly extreme for his period. And what motivated him mainly was the exercise of power. Race was an enabler for him, making him feel he could get away with anything, but transplanted to a different situation he would be just as happy using gender or religion or sexuality or fashion choices as an excuse to persecute the underdog.

    Some of his fellow cops were more racist and dumber, and he could manipulate them by appealing to their prejudice, which he understood better than they did.

  4. “I take it as read that evrybody’s at least a bit racist, if only in their worst moments.

    Well everybody ISN’T.

    This country was founded on White Racism and is still run on it.

  5. Agreed: and the present administration is making that obvious even to the least observant. Though, horribly, many of the least observant don’t mind a bit.

    I’m not trying to pull a Trumpian “many sides” thing. I just think nobody is wholly innocent, except maybe the smallest of children. But there is no equivalence in the LEVEL of guilt on either side. The oppressor is the problem here, not the victims.

    The bogus victimhood of the white supremacists is repulsive in the extreme.

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