Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is an almost feverishly intense historical drama that concludes with a careful credit stating that the film is drawn from the testimonies of the people who lived through the events depicted rather than the official record — and that’s because the official record is wrong.
A more directly political and provocative film than her The Hurt Locker (for which she won the Best Director Oscar) and Zero Dark Thirty, both of which tend to remain neutral, this digs up the hidden truths behind Detroit’s 12th Street Riot back in 1967 (on its 50th anniversary) and directly comments and reflects upon the situation in America (and beyond) right now. Yet some have complained that Bigelow didn’t need to add her voice to the increasing debate because, of course, racism is no longer an issue under President Trump, don’t you know?
With a script by Bigelow’s regular collaborator Mark Boal (and her background in action movies like Near Dark, Blue Steel and the original Point Break coming to the fore), this begins pretty much where the riot began, as the police stage a violent raid on an unlicensed nightclub and the locals object angrily. Civil unrest increases as Governor George W. Romney calls the National Guard and paratroopers in to deal with the situation, and genuine archival footage is seamlessly intercut with recreations shot in Brockton, Massachusetts and close to Detroit in Hamtramck, Michigan.
Several characters are introduced during the first half of what turns out to be an epic (143 minute) running time: the fledgling R&B group The Dramatics are about to play at a music hall when they’re forced to cancel the show, and they must flee; Greene (Anthony Mackie, a Bigelow fave and one of the Avengers too), an honourably discharged Vietnam veteran looking for work, is trapped in town; and a security guard named Melvin Disnmukes (John Boyega from the new Star Wars outings) tries his best to calm everyone down. Most importantly we’re also introduced to policeman Philip Krauss (English actor Will Poulter of those alarmingly-arched eyebrows), who’s first seen gunning down a looter, perhaps facing murder charges and then allowed back on duty as the crisis intensifies.
Much of the second half here, however, pulls the action right in to chronicle what went on during the so-called ‘Algiers Motel Incident’, where a starter pistol fired as a simple act of trouble-making leads Krauss and his boys to descend upon the guests, including those Dramatics guys, Greene, a pair of cool white girls (Hannah Murray as Julie and Kaitlyn Dever as Karen) and others. Although Dismukes turns up to try and defuse the situation, we watch as the sequence goes on and on, the tension grows and grows, the power games get smarter and nastier, and you can’t help but wonder what the modern Detroit police force collectively think about Bigelow and her movie.
When The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty were released conservative commentators and army vets demonised Kathryn for daring to make movies so quietly critical of the military, but now those naysayers have come out in force to tear her down again, this time for directing a film that dares to potently demonstrate just what racism is all about. However, this important but difficult film should nevertheless be seen, as much for what it tells us about 1967 as it does about the present-day.
Rated MA. Detroit is in cinemas now.