John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Anthony Mackie, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever
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There’s no getting around it: Detroit, the latest offering from director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) is a tough watch. The entire middle third of the film, some 40 minutes, is an extended sequence of interrogation and torture, book-ended by murder. Under the leadership of a cold-eyed uniformed cop, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), a group of Detroit Police, Michigan State Police, and National Guardsmen try to get a group of civilians – black men and two young, white women – to hand over a gun and the man that was using it.
There is no gun. The authorities don’t believe them. Or they don’t care. Or they need there to be a gun, to shield themselves from recriminations. It doesn’t matter. Caught in the frame of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s jittery, roving cameras, there’s nowhere to hide. It’s an incredibly tense scene, more horrible than horror, and it really happened.
Detroit is based on the Algiers Motel Incident that took place in 1967 during Detroit’s 12th Street Riot, when angry African Americans took to the streets in response to a police raid on an illegal after hours club. The street violence and paramilitary response will be familiar to anyone who saw footage of the LA riots after the Rodney King verdict – indeed, seeing handwritten signs in the windows of businesses proclaiming them to be black-owned is a jarring sight – and the causes and tensions are remarkably similar: economic disenfranchisement, ghettoisation, a smouldering sense of injustice, white cops, black civilians.
Bigelow and Boal force us to look at these parallels, refusing to consign Detroit to the rather safe and separate category of historical fiction, even though it is set almost precisely 50 years ago. The militarised police presence, the fires in the streets, the barred windows and fearful faces we’re confronted with again and again – swap out the fashions and the music and very little has changed. Intriguingly and perhaps depressingly, a look at Bigelow’s 1995 sci-fi film Strange Days, which boasts similar imagery, gives you the sense that she doesn’t think it’s going to change any time soon, either.
Perhaps that’s why Detroit sketches its scenario and characters so quickly and economically – we don’t need a lot of breadcrumbs to get us where we need to be, in the annex of the Algiers Motel, because what we’re going to see there has already happened, will happen again, is happening now. A brightly animated prologue, done in the style of late 20th century African American street art, sketches the economic and social situation for us, then we’re briskly and efficiently introduced to our key players: security guard Melvin Desmukes (John Boyega), tasked with guarding a nearby store from looters and a man used to defusing both black and white aggression; Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and The Dramatics, a black singing group who take shelter at the Algiers after their gig is shut down in the face of the riots; Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), white party girls staying at the motel; and Greene (Anthony Mackie), recently returned from Vietnam and staying at the Algiers while looking for work.
Things kick off when Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) another man staying at the Algiers, decides, playfully, provocatively, stupidly, to fire a starter pistol out the window to scare some nearby cops and guardsmen. What follows has the tragic inevitability of an incoming tsunami. Not that the film lets anyone off the hook – individual choices and morals still matter, but the events are positioned in such a way that we understand that each person here is on the leading edge of titanic social forces, being either ground to a mean point or irreparably broken.
But all that is abstract – what matters in the moment is the cruelty, the callousness, the violence and the fear, which is wrought in an absolutely scarring way. It’s worth reflecting on one of the key early scenes in Bigelow and Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty, where Jason Clarke’s interrogator puts the hard word on a terrorist suspect while Jessica Chastain’s CIA analyst looks on. That film was accused of endorsing torture; Detroit puts you in the shoes of the tortured, and it doesn’t let you out.
Worse, it offers little in the way of catharsis, which will frustrate some viewers. Justice is not done, and the film offers no pat moments of false triumph to salve us as we exit the theatre. We’re left in a state of anger, confusion, and moral outrage – and that’s as it should be, because this stuff is still happening, and we know it. Detroit is a simply extraordinary and uncompromising film, and if it’s almost unbearably punishing as a result, that’s because it needs to be to drive its point home. Absolutely unmissable.