Half an hour into Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, after vivid scenes of the 1967 12th street race riots, a young black man in the Algiers Hotel goes to a window and fires a starter pistol to scare the nearby armed forces. The film then becomes a home invasion horror movie but instead of a gang of thugs or a serial killer, the menace comes from Detroit police officers. Armed forces intended to protect the public such as the National Guard or state police stand down to avoid a civil rights issue. This is therefore scarier than any home invasion horror movie.
First and foremost Detroit must be judged as a film. Thankfully, it is one of the more thrilling, suspenseful and upsetting films that I have seen this year. Comparisons must be made to Dunkirk in terms of the way in which Bigelow recreates the events through subjective perspectives. You experience the Algiers motel incident through the eyes of people you have been encouraged to empathise with, even the antagonists. Consequently I experienced a tension and discomfort only the most riveting movies can evoke.
Performances are excellent all around. John Boyega stands out as a security guard who has learned how to survive in this fraught society and has mastered all the little acts of bravery and of submission necessary to stay alive each day. There’s a beautiful sorrow to the man. Algee Smith’s utterly convincing transformation from confident man with a plan and a future into a traumatised survivor is the most fully realised human story in the film. Will Poulter, meanwhile, gives a sneering face to the racism that often goes unspoken in the action of the movie. Hannah Murray is powerfully defiant, yet fragile in her portrayal of one of the two white girls caught up in the incident.
The setting is effectively invoked by the detailed production design and never too intrusive music. The battlefield of the Detroit Streets is impressively oppressive. “It feels like ‘Nam” says one officer. If so, this is Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Nam, recreated in the concrete wastelands on the Isle of Dogs.
The film is however also a political statement. As such it is an urgent cry out against police injustice and institutionalised racism. The film achieved the greatest victory that movies like this can achieve; halfway through the film I was dying to do my own research and find out how much of this actually happened. The events are so extraordinary that you need to know how much of it is true. Of course, real history and events like this are always so obfuscated by the passing of time and entirely dependent on inconsistent eye witness testimony and memory, that there are bound to be unsolved mysteries. What the film accomplishes, though, is capturing the tragedy and severity of what did happen.
The film does resist a simplistic depiction of the events. This isn’t an inherently racist police force versus always-innocent civilians. There are heroes and villains on each side. Diplomats and instigators. Victims and opportunists. At the heart of the movie though is a shameful injustice and one that deserves to be remembered.
As a result this is not only an exceptionally well-functioning thriller but also an important film for the current climate. The film is compelling and thoughtful, as one should always expect from Kathryn Bigelow.