No, not that movie where Dan Aykroyd pretends to be a pimp (that’s Doctor Detroit). Instead, it’s Kathryn Bigelow’s searing real-life drama depicting the infamous’ 60s Detroit riots.
DIRECTOR Kathryn Bigelow
CAST John Boyega, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Will Poulter, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinski, Jack Reynor, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever
PLOT Detroit, Michigan, 1967. In the heat of the infamous 12th Street uprising, a task-force, led by racist cop Philip Krauss (Poulter), raids the Algiers Motel searching for a sniper. When they fail to find him, the mostly African-american guests are subjected to a horrifying storm of hatred and violence that spills into murder.
FORTY-THREE DEAD, 1,200 injured, 7,000 arrested, 2,000 buildings scorched. It’s easy to get lost in the shattering scale of the Detroit riots. Over five days in 1967, the Summer Of Love exploded into hate as the civil rights movement tipped into civil war. Powered by centuries of white oppression, the African-american uprising left Motor City a burnt-out, smoking husk.
Kathryn Bigelow’s eviscerating epic, her first since Zero Dark Thirty, warrants a subtitle: ‘The Anatomy Of A Riot’. Bigelow is a master of timebomb cinema and its portentous, tick-tocking rhythms, but Detroit detonates from the opening reel. After a clatter of archive news footage, you’re plunged into a combustible recreation of a cop raid on a speakeasy — the flashpoint that fuelled the revolt. As looting breaks out and the tanks are rolled in, Bigelow sets her cast on a collision course: Will Poulter’s callous cop, introduced shooting a rioter in the back as if he’s out hunting game; Algee Smith’s Larry Reed, lead singer in Motown soul group The Dramatics; and John Boyega’s private security guard, Melvin Dismukes.
The riot is into its third day when the three converge at the Algiers Motel — a refuge from the violence that, in a hideous twist of irony, became the backdrop to a massacre. Alerted by a gunshot (actually a prank with a starter pistol), the Detroit Police and the National Guard Swiss-cheese the motel with bullets, then move in to raid the building. As the innocent suspects are rounded up, what starts out as an interrogation rapidly descends into a kangaroo court — Krauss (Poulter) as judge and jury, and fellow cop Demens (Reynor) as his compliant accomplice. By the end of the night, three of the guests will be dead, nine will have been assaulted and the cops will saunter out as if nothing ever happened. Recreated in unflinching real-time, Detroit’s sustained sense-attack will be talked about for
years, if not decades, to come — an hour-long endurance so physical you experience it in the pit of your stomach.
This has to be the closest Bigelow’s come to pure horror since Near Dark, but even that comparison’s left wanting. Near Dark was fantasy — the horror of Detroit has the sickening flash of reality, its true events backed up by Mark Boal’s tenaciously researched screenplay. Bigelow is too cool-eyed to be blinded by sentiment or shock tactics — she restages the Algiers Motel Incident as a compacted microcosm of the era’s race-hate, powered by full-force performances. Boyega’s security guard is a classic Bigelow character — a rigid professional compromised by fate and wedged in an impossible position: the locals see him as in cahoots with the powers-that-be; the cops see him as a second-class citizen. Boyega’s in prime form here, while Poulter’s casting as Detroit’s dictatorial cop is a masterstroke: that boyish face masking a cold bigot who, in the film’s most chilling moment of dehumanising disgrace, declares the death-raid as just a game.
After its breath-stealing centrepiece, Detroit’s third act feels like a slow, rasping exhale. There is, inevitably, a leaking out of Detroit’s intensity, as if you’ve entered a decompression chamber, but the trauma lingers like toxic gas. Bigelow closes out the film with a genre-switch to courtroom drama as the cops and Dismukes are held to account in an all-white court with an all-white jury with a whitewash conclusion — an extended aftershock of institutional bias that offers no closure, no comfort and a devastating coda for Algee Smith’s traumatised survivor. The Academy is notoriously wary when it comes to incendiary content, but if Detroit does become an Awards player, Smith’s performance deserves to be honoured.
As with Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit has a clean, raw look, its lucid colour palette intensifying the clarity of Bigelow’s vision. A lot of the shots, especially during its early riot sequences, feel stolen rather than staged, charged up by visceral, smash-and-grab camerawork (the film is vividly lensed by Paul Greengrass’ handheld warrior of choice, Barry Ackroyd). It’s a technique that turns the passive viewer into an active witness, but let’s remember: this film is for the fallen, then and now. It’s for Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, Ezell Ford in LA, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee and countless other victims who’ve lost their lives to establishment prejudice. Black lives matter, but some deaths echo louder than most. Wake up, says Detroit. Wake up. SIMON CROOK
VERDICT A gruelling, nightmarish, ferociously vivid riot epic that recreates one of the darkest chapters in American history. Unflinching, unmissable and terrifyingly pertinent.
Clockwise from left: Will Poulter’s Krauss pins innocent Fred (Jacob Latimore) against the wall; John Boyega’s wary security guard Melvin Dismukes; 12th Street rioting; Kaitlyn Dever as Karen, realising the refuge at the Algiers Motel is anything but.