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 an epidemic of looting breaks out and the government rolls in the tanks, 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, lead singer in Motown soul group The Dramatics; Anthony Mackie’s Greene, a Vietnam war veteran; and John Boyega’s private security guard, Melvin Dismukes.
Detroit’s sustained sense-attack will be talked about for years
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 (Will Poulter) as judge and jury, and fellow cop Demens (Jack 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 veracious, 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, crusading 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 above all others.
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.