Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is a harrowing, day-in-the-life story of police violence and massive injustice that puts you right in the middle of the action. Set amidst the Detroit riots of 1967, the film follows an assortment of characters who all converged on the Algiers Motel on the night of July 26th. At the end of that night, three men were dead at the hands of the Detroit police, and an assortment of other lives were shattered. Bigelow and her regular writing partner Mark Boal dive into this story with the same careful insight and human interest that they displayed in previous efforts like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. While the film may not reach the narrative heights of Zero Dark Thirty, it is a chilling and immersive look at a shocking incident of racial violence and the systematic injustice that makes it all too familiar to this day.
The film begins with a police raid on an underground black club where soldiers are celebrating their return from the Vietnam War. As dozens club patrons are forced onto the street by the police, an angry mob slowly gathers at the scene. Like a small camp fire quickly spreading into a blaze, the crowd grows more and more angry until the riot begins. It’s an expertly crafted scene, spotlighting the sort of targeted persecution levelled against the city’s black community and placing it in context. Barry Ackroyd’s roaming, verité shooting style throws us into the fray, viscerally capturing the anger and frustration and mixing seamlessly with real footage shot on the streets of the city.
After the initial scenes, the film widens it’s scope to collect the cast of characters that it will then corral slowly towards the Algiers Motel. The closest we get to a main character in the film is Larry Reed (Algee Smith) the lead singer of the up-and-coming soul band The Dramatics. Larry and his band mates are waiting in the wings of a theatre just before their big break, when the concert is cancelled due to the riots. Caught in the chaos, Larry and his bandmate Fred (Jacob Latimore) head to the Algiers, where a party is underway. Elsewhere John Boyega’s Melvin Dismukes is on his third shift in a row as a security guard, keeping an eye on a grocery store across from the Algiers. When Jason Mitchell’s Carl fires a starting pistol from an upstairs window of the motel in an attempt at a drunken joke, police, National Guardsmen and Dismukes descend on The Algiers, and things really hit the fan.
The events at the Algiers are the dark heart of the film. With a search of the motel turning up no gun, Will Poulter’s Detroit police officer Philip Krauss decides to line up the guests of the hotel against a wall and interrogate them. Krauss is further infuriated by the fact that two white women, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), dare to fraternize with the motel’s black guests. With the aid of his equally racist lackey Flynn (Ben O’Toole), and the slightly reluctant Demens (Jack Reynor), the officers terrorize the guests, taking some of them into side rooms and firing their weapons, making the others believe they have been executed. All the while Dismukes stands witness, occasionally interceding and attempting to get the guests to admit to having a weapon. It’s a relentlessly tense and admittedly difficult to watch sequence as the death game slowly grows more real, and the frenzy of the riots outside the motel begins to infect the police officers within it.
Bringing these scenes to life are a series of career-best performances from the young cast. Will Poulter delivers a chillingly good performance as the hateful Krauss. When he claims self-defence after gunning down a rioter early in the film the investigating detective snaps “you shot him in the back!” to which Krauss replies, “where else do you want me to shoot him?” John Boyega has a smouldering intensity as Dismukes, a man caught between worlds and eventually complicit due to his inaction. Algee Smith and Anthony Mackie both have fantastic moments, but the real breakout performance for me was Hannah Murray. Game of Thrones fans will recognize her as Gilly, but the British actress has never been given this calibre of material to play with, and is a scene stealer every moment she is on screen.
There is not doubt that the many injustices perpetrated against the guests of the Algiers Motel will have you grinding your teeth in anger, but it’s also hard not to watch them with a resigned expectation. Bigelow and Boal have always made films that examine America’s recent history, and while they travel to the 1960s for this one, the events, and subsequent lack of repercussions for the law officers involved, speak volumes about how little things have changed. Detroit is not laid back entertainment. Detroit is any angry condemnation, not just of one historical moment of police brutality, but a system that has allowed countless stories like this one play out over the century. It is a powerful and chilling piece of filmmaking, and one that everyone should see.
Reviewed by Evan Arppe.