Kathryn Bigelow’s new film detroit is about the riots of ’67 in detroit 50 years ago, but its outlook stretches an awful lot farther than that. it is her third collaboration with screenplay writer mark boal, who previously worked with bigelow on the hurt locker and zero dark thirty. Bigelow has made a film about her country’s deep-seated derangement on matters of race – back then, right now, at all times in between, and for goodness-knows-how much longer.
In late july of 1967, the height of a five day riot sparked by a crude law-enforcement crackdown on an unlicensed african-american drinking den, three black teenagers died from gunshot wounds sustained over a mile away at the city’s Algiers Motel, during a raid on the property by police and the National Guard.
Detroit pegs out the context of their deaths with diligence and nerve – and the opening and closing chapters of Bigelow’s film have just the sparky jumble of perspectives you’d expect, with the camera bobbing and weaving through the unrest and its aftermath as if it’s trying to triangulate the truth at close quarters.
Assembling an array of talented actors, Detroit encompasses one of the year’s best ensembles. In particular, Will Poulter as Krauss, a racist and volatile police officer, is remarkable. The hatred and ignorance he chooses to wear upon his skin is at times incredibly unnerving but always compelling. John Boyega‘s Dismukes, a late night security officer, echoes the career of a young Denzel Washington, and is shockingly subdued. His representation illustrates the inner battles that constantly plague any minority in a position of power, attempting to help one’s of his own community.There are countless other highlights among the cast: Anthony Mackie reminding us of his “Hurt Locker” days, shows pure strength and resolve. Jason Mitchell rides the line between anger and fear effortlessly in two short scenes.
he central motel incident itself, which plays out in just a handful of rooms and a shabby corridor, becomes a bottleneck the entire film has to squeeze through – and squeeze it emphatically does, and you along with it, until you swear you can hear your own skeleton splinter and creak. As a handful of mostly black guests are rounded up and tormented by three racist white officers under the pretence of a search for a (non-existent) sniper, the period detail melts away to be replaced by a sort of mad lucidity, as if you’re somehow watching this lunacy live and uncut.
Neither side can be certain Dismukes is one of their own. He’s nominally on the same team as the lawmakers, and, because he’s black, he’s easy to brand a collaborator and an ‘Uncle Tom’. But heis black nevertheless, which for the three police officers is cause for concern enough – and early on, while trying to make common cause with the National Guard, we see him making a tactical decision to tug the forelock because he senses it serves a vastly greater good.
Once the significant shock of the film fades, what stays with you are its implications – the way it shows division digging in and self-perpetuating like cancer in bone, with each flare-up making the next more grimly probable. This is history retold in the blistering present tense. Detroit delivers a gut-wrenching, and essential, dramatisation of a tragic chapter from America’s past that draws distressing parallels to the present.