Archive for Jacob Lawrence

Battle of the Algiers

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 11, 2017 by dcairns

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?