Detroit Review

After The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal reteam to tell a true story from half a century ago, finding unnerving present-day resonance in the details. Using exhaustive research, they recount the events surrounding the Detroit riots for the first time, with characters who feel achingly real. It’s so impeccably assembled that it carries a strong punch to the gut.

It kicked off in July 1967 when white police raided a peaceful party, brutally arresting the blacks in attendance. People hit the streets in protest, and the officials cracked down. Caught up in this, aspiring Motown singer Larry (Algee Smith) and his pal Fred (Jacob Latimore) take refuge in the Algiers Motel, where they meet some other men (including Anthony Mackie and Jason Mitchell) and two white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever). Thinking they heard shots fired, local cop Krauss (Will Poulter) and his partners (Jack Reynor and Ben O’Toole) charge in, lining everyone up and menacing them brutally. Caught in the middle, security guard Melvin (John Boyega) tries to diffuse the situation without further aggravating these viciously bigoted policemen.

The film opens with a lucid prologue tracing the roots of America’s racial tensions in the continued segregation between inner-cities and suburbs, creating a police state with whites marginalising blacks. Bigelow’s direction and Boal’s script then recount events journalistically, throwing the audience right into the situation without character back-stories. This makes everything feel urgent and dangerous, a situation in which absolutely anything can happen. So when it leads to murder, we’re deeply horrified.

This style of filmmaking highlights the actors. Boyega is the entry point for the audience, a good guy caught in an impossible position. And the actor finds all kinds of unexpected textures in the role. Smith is the other sympathetic figure, a charming, talented man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Opposite them, the committed Poulter is a force of nature, channelling Krauss’ racism with unexpected complexity. It’s left to Reynor and O’Toole to add an undercurrent of doubt.

Pieced together from first-hand reports, the film is earthy and organic. And it’s impossible to watch this film without seeing it echo in events taking place now, half a century later. From anger in the street to injustice in the courtroom, several generations of Americans understand these kinds of shocking events far too well. So the film leaves us shaken with its reminder that we can’t just drift along hoping peace and equality happens by itself. Without stepping in to change the system, this will happen again and again.

Watch the trailer for Detroit: