Kathryn Bigelow previously electrified with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Her latest ‘bolsters her standing as a major film-maker,’ writes Caryn James.

From the start of her career Kathryn Bigelow has been a master of technique, toying smartly with genre. Her sci-fi dystopian romance Strange Days (1995) is an underrated gem. But it wasn’t until she and screenwriter Mark Boal created films tethered to the reality of wartime events that she rightly came to be considered one of the best film-makers working today. The Hurt Locker (2008), about a US bomb disposal squad in Iraq, and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), about the search for Osama Bin Laden, are fiercely suspenseful and topical.

The ambient noise of crowds, explosions and Motown music plunge you in

Detroit, her most passionate and politically-charged work, brings that approach to a different kind of war. The film dramatises a true but little-known story that resonates so strongly with tensions between police and minority protestors today, not just in the US but in cities around the world, that there is no need to make that connection overt. In 1967, in the middle of a five-day city riot, white policemen terrorised a group of black men and two white women in a hotel called the Algiers, killing three people in cold blood.  Unrelenting in its hold on viewers, Detroit bolsters Bigelow’s standing as a major film-maker, even though the weak characterisation in Boal’s screenplay sometimes lets her down.

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Bigelow chooses some beautiful images to lead into that ugly story. Detroit opens with a sequence of paintings by the great African-American artist Jacob Lawrence, animated into motion as text on screen explains what Lawrence’s Migration series illustrated. In the early 20th Century, millions of black Americans left the rural south for the north, where racial tensions grew. In 1967, violence exploded in many cities.

Before the film arrives at the Algiers incident, Bigelow viscerally recreates the chaos that led up to it. Protests escalate into riots, with looting and fire-bombing, as store windows are smashed and a gas station explodes. Her hand-held camera take us into the streets, with a gritty visual texture that matches old news footage woven in. The background sound – the ambient noise of crowds, explosions, even Motown music – becomes a crucial element plunging viewers into the experience. Detroit police, Michigan state police and the US National Guard are called in, creating more havoc than calm.

Brought to a boil

The lead-up also introduces the major characters, most of them based on real people. Larry Reed (Algee Smith) is a singer in a group called The Dramatics. Trying to escape the violence, he lands at the Algiers, where the guests include two young white women and a black Army veteran (Anthony Mackie). John Boyega plays the real-life Melvin Dismukes, a security guard at a grocery store, who offers coffee to National Guardsmen as a gesture that he wants no trouble. When a young black man berates Dismukes as an Uncle Tom, the insult becomes a forecast of how tricky his position will become when he arrives at the hotel. 

Will Poulter plays a white police officer named Krauss, a composite character, who shoots a black man in the back as he jumps a fence and within hours is sent out on patrol again. He too ends up at the Algiers because he and his white partner hear gunshots from that direction and assume a sniper has fired. Bigelow has already revealed what that sound was: someone was playing with a toy gun.

The prolonged scenes of police brutality are as unflinching as Zero Dark Thirty’s torture

The centrepiece of Detroit is an extended sequence, based on witness interviews and documents, in which Krauss leads other officers as they terrorise the Algiers guests for hours. The police line them up facing a wall, point guns at them and threaten to kill them if they don’t reveal who the sniper is. Some men are taken individually into rooms and beaten. Bigelow’s camera goes into those rooms, and also shows the remaining people still against the wall, who hear gunshots and assume they are next. The women are taken aside and groped, their clothes torn. Krauss becomes more and more brutal. This time when he shoots someone he plants a penknife at the victim’s side so he can claim self-defense. The prolonged scenes, shot in close-up and with the camera searching the bodies and faces of the terrorised, are as unflinching and as excruciating as the torture episodes in Zero Dark Thirty.

‘Too long and too abrupt’

Even in the midst of this intensity, Boyega takes command of every scene he is in. The well-intentioned Dismukes runs to the hotel because he thinks he can help. He stands physically apart from both factions, and offers advice to the justly infuriated black men: don’t resist the police, just “survive the night”. Boyega is largely called on to express Dismukes’s conflicted position without language, which he does with heartbreaking nuance. The pained look on his face as he stands by watching the women being led away registers horror, helplessness, and a tinge of self-doubt. Star Wars: The Force Awakens catapulted Boyega to stardom, but Detroit proves he is an amazing actor.

The ending misses the emotion the rest of Detroit is building toward and deserves

Poulter’s role and performance are more problematic. Krauss is a blow-hard who begins the film by pontificating about law and order, a racist who refuses to acknowledge his own bigotry, a mid-level cop puffed up with his own authority. By any measure he is, and is meant to be, a realistically vile human being. Then why does the character seem so over-the-top? Because his evil is telegraphed early and bluntly. Poulter enters the film with a demented look in his eye, which works against Bigelow’s message: that police violence against blacks was and is systemic, not the work of a crazed individual riling up his cohorts as Krauss does.

The story is carried into the courtroom, where several policemen are charged with murder, and Dismukes with assault. The film collapses time. In reality, there was more than one trial and changes of venue. On screen, the end seems both too long and too abrupt, without the emotional impact the rest of Detroit builds toward and deserves.  Nonetheless, there is every reason to admire Bigelow’s film and her fearlessness. She faced built-in questions about whether a white director should tackle this subject, yet leapt in. Ava DuVernay’s take, for example, would have been every bit as welcome and possibly quite different. But Bigelow is the one who made Detroit. She came through with as powerful a film as this year is likely to see. 

★★★★☆

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