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D: Kathryn Bigelow / 143m

Cast: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Kaitlyn Dever, Hannah Murray, Ben O’Toole, Jack Reynor, Malcolm David Kelley, Nathan Davis Jr, Peyton ‘Alex’ Smith, Austin Hébert, John Krasinski, Jeremy Strong

Like many extreme incidents of violence and aggression, the 12th Street riot began in somewhat innocuous fashion with a raid on an unlicensed underground club, a “blind pig” frequented by blacks. As everyone at the club was being loaded into police vans, a crowd gathered and began throwing rocks at the police, and when they had left the scene, the crowd – now more of an unruly mob – began destroying and looting any and all surrounding stores and properties. This was 23 July 1967. It was the beginning of one of the worst recorded outbreaks of civil disobedience in the entire history of the US. It lasted for five days, and during that time forty-three people died, 1,189 were injured, over 7,200 were arrested, and over 2,000 buildings were destroyed. Only the 1863 New York City draft riots, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots were worse.

By the third night, the situation had grown so bad that President Johnson authorised the use of federal troops in aiding the police in their attempts to quell the rioting. With the city of Detroit under a quasi-martial law, the looting and the destruction and the violence continued. Against this backdrop, director Kathryn Bigelow has chosen to tell the story of the Algiers Motel incident, a tragic event that saw three people die, and a trio of police officers arrested for murder. Working again with Mark Boal, the screenwriter of her previous two movies – The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – Bigelow has fashioned an incredibly tense, incredibly gripping thriller that grabs the viewer’s attention from the start, and thrusts them into the midst of the violent upheaval that occurred that fateful summer.

Bigelow is a bravura movie director, and she makes Detroit a visceral experience, hard-hitting and uncompromising, blending contemporary footage with the movie’s recreation of the period to brilliant effect. It’s the closest anyone is likely to get to being in an urban war zone, and Bigelow knows just how to ramp up the tension and make the movie as gripping as possible. From the moment when a young man named Carl (Mitchell) decides to have fun with the National Guard and the police by firing a starter pistol out of a window at the Algiers Motel, and in their direction, the sense of impending doom is palpable. It’s just the excuse that two particular cops, Krauss (Poulter), and Flynn (O’Toole), need: to be the heroes who apprehend the “sniper” at the Algiers Motel. Along with a third officer, Demens (Reynor), they soon make their presence felt at the motel, and within moments, one black man is dead and everyone else the cops have discovered are being forced to stand face first against a wall and keep quiet so that Krauss and his fellow officers can track down the sniper. What follows is a powerful examination of implicit racism applied in a pressure cooker environment. Krauss won’t believe anyone who says they didn’t see a sniper, or who says they didn’t even see a gun. He has to be sure, and what better way to get at the truth than by intimidating, bullying, abusing and beating the truth out of them?

As the movie continues, Detroit‘s sympathies lie very obviously with the people at the motel, including two white girls, Karen (Dever) and Julie (Murray), and a handful of black men, including would-be singer Larry Reed (Smith). As the tension grows, Bigelow successfully avoids making these characters mere ciphers, and uses the situation to inculcate audiences with just how they behave or react, whether it’s defiantly, bravely, or by being just plain scared. As Krauss’s psychopathy keeps everyone praying to be spared, a game of intimidation spirals out of control and the barely thought out motivations of Krauss and his fellow cops is exposed for the superficially “clever” institutional racism that dictates their every move. It’s horrifying to watch, and is made all the more horrifying by the casual evil displayed by Poulter as the intentionally duplicitous Krauss (it’s worth noting that Poulter is still only twenty-four, and his performance, while atypical, is also astounding).

With the inherent tension in place and Bigelow tightening the screws at every turn, the wider cultural and social implications of the events that night are allowed to seep out around the narrative and add a further layer of discomfort to what the viewer is witnessing. Providing a counterpoint to Krauss’s predatory racism is the passive presence of store security guard Melvin Dismukes (Boyega). Drawn to the Algiers by the sound of the “gunfire”, Dismukes at first appears to be our eyes and ears on the inside, a witness to the horrors perpetrated by the police. But Dismukes’ presence proves disconcerting, as he soon adopts the role of quiescent observer, ever watchful but effectively complicit in what takes place. The initial bravery and diligence he shows when we first meet him is shorn away to reveal a man who shrinks before our eyes as the movie progresses. In contrast we see the unprompted heroism of the two young white girls, trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time and victims of violence, sexist rhetoric and inverse racism. Bigelow isn’t making any comments about “good whites and bad blacks”, or even “bad whites and good blacks”, instead she’s making the point that the decisions we make in extreme circumstances, such as the Algiers Motel incident, affect us all differently in the long run (though in Krauss’s case you’d have to argue that there’s no effect at all).

Valid notions of causality and pre-determinism aside, Detroit works best by not appearing to judge why the riots happened, or to provide a wider historical and cultural context for what did happen. That’s for another movie altogether, and Bigelow and Boal are right to keep their focus on events at the Algiers Motel, and for using them to explore the riots in microcosm, whether it’s through the yielding eyes of Dismukes, or the desperate, traumatised eyes of Larry Reed. Some viewers may find the aftermath of the riots more disturbing than the riots themselves, as Detroit picks itself up and dusts itself down and restores order in the best way it knows how: by refusing to acknowledge that “the establishment” did anything wrong. That’s an issue that is very much in the contemporary eye right now, and if Bigelow ever intended to make a political statement through her movie, that would be it.

Rating: 9/10 – a movie that burns brightly in its attempts to provide immediacy with a contemplation of the events of 25 July 1967, Detroit is a fierce, intelligent, provocative, and often incendiary piece of movie making from an equally fierce, intelligent and provocative movie maker; with exemplary cinematography from Barry Ackroyd, and practically precision-tooled editing from William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, this is a movie that lingers in the mind and provides enough food for thought for three movies, let alone one.