An impressive and alarming recreation of shameful actions in America fifty years ago.


Kathryn Bigelow’s new film has been called a thriller about the Detroit riots of 1967, but that is a description that doesn't begin to get to the core of the work. For one thing calling it a thriller suggests an entertainment but Detroit is far too serious to be that and, while the riots provide the background, the main focus is very much on a specific and horrifying event that took place in the city’s Algiers Motel. A police raid on the motel led to the victimisation of a group of people staying there, mainly black men but also two white women. The police brutality escalated leaving no less than three of the occupants dead. The individual who instigated this was a patrolman, Krauss (Will Poulter), who had already shot a black looter earlier that same day. Given that this appalling confrontation takes up the whole central section of the film, it seems apt to describe Detroit as a portrayal of the attitude and behaviour of white supremacists - and that, of course, makes this historical piece very much a film for today.


Working, as she did on 2008’s The Hurt Locker with the writer Mark Boal and the photographer Barry Ackroyd, Bigelow’s aim here is to create a work in which viewers are made to feel that they are sharing the experience depicted on the screen. Christopher Nolan did that to great effect in the recent Dunkirk and Bigelow is equally successful here (both films, incidentally, offer characters for the audience to identify with but without giving them backstories). This approach (greatly enhanced by the superb editing) is what makes Detroit so powerful, although it could be that it also makes it dangerous.


Towards the end, the film is slightly less effective: the trial that followed is a vital part of the story, adding as it did to the injustice, but the scenes of interrogation in court are more serviceable than special and the decision to wrap up with the music of a church choir is, in marked contrast to the film's unexpected Prologue, less than inspired. But Bigelow’s achievement certainly extends to the uniformly fine performances she has obtained from her cast. John Boyega playing a security guard shows his star quality, but the two more central roles are those taken brilliantly by Algee Smith (the actor and  singer appears as a singer unlucky enough to be staying at the motel) and by Will Poulter. The latter makes the vicious patrolman one of the vilest characters in cinema history. Indeed, despite the evident good intentions on the part of all concerned, the intensity of this portrayal of monstrous inhumanity could invite a resurgence of hatred towards white people among black audiences (I say that because the film almost made me ashamed of being white). But the fact that I could even think of that as a possible reaction is in itself evidence of the extraordinary impact made by Detroit.




Cast: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O'Toole, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie, Glenn Fitzgerald, Jennifer Ehle.


Dir Kathryn Bigelow, Pro Megan Ellison, Kathryn Bigelow, Matthew Budman, Mark Boal and Colin Wilson, Screenplay Mark Boal, Ph Barry Ackroyd, Pro Des Jeremy Hindle, Ed William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, Music James Newton Howard, Costumes Francine Jamison-Tanchuk.


Annapurna Pictures/First Light Productions/Harpers Ferry/Page 1-Entertainment One.
143 mins. USA. 2017. Rel: 25 August 2017. Cert. 15.