Given the success, both critically and commercially, of her two previous films (The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), the expectation surrounding Kathryn Bigelow’s latest offering was always going to run the risk overshadowing the film itself. Furthermore, comparisons between Detroit and Bigelow’s two war films (which won seven Academy Awards between them) were inevitable and not altogether fair given that every film should be assessed on its own merits. Having said that, it is easy to understand why Detroit has been such a hotly anticipated release given that, despite the fact it is a historical drama set some 50 years ago, it is perhaps as much a window into the current social and political climate in America than either of her contemporary military dramas, if not more so.
Based on true events that occurred during the 1967 riots which left much of the city a mess, Detroit concerns itself more with one particular incident that took place amidst the conflict, rather than delivering any over-arching narrative on the broader course of events, perhaps because are they are too large in scope to try and explore within the confines of a feature length running time. Whatever the reason, the absence of context – other than a brief animated sequence which opens the film and attempts, in just a couple of minutes, to explain how millions of African-Americans migrated from the south to cities in the north (such as Detroit) where they hoped to find jobs and a prosperous future, only to be faced with the same racism they had fled – does a disservice to the significance of what transpired over the five days of unrest that left 43 people dead and more than 2000 buildings destroyed. As such, when the story kicks off with the raid on an unlicensed after-hours bar that is widely accepted as the event that triggered the civil unrest, you haven’t developed any real sense of the tensions that had obviously been simmering for quite some time prior to this point. Bigelow only allows for a few scene-setting episodes to show the spread of the riot before shifting focus to the events at the Algiers Motel.
When a guest at the motel decides, playfully but ill-advisedly, to fire a starter pistol out the window, the police and military personnel patrolling the surrounding streets assume they are being targeted and converge on the Algiers. Those partying inside in defiance of the chaos unfolding on the streets include two white women, a Vietnam veteran and members of doo-wop group The Dramatics. Krauss (Will Poulter), a bully cop who has kept his job despite having shot an unarmed looter in the back, leads the charge in trying to locate the weapon and identify the shooter. Except, of course, there is no real gun to speak of, a fact that Krauss simply refuses to accept as he sets about beating and berating the various ‘suspects’ with impunity. Poulter (We’re the Millers, The Revenant) delivers a remarkably unnerving portrayal of this sneering, hate-filled racist whose bigotry is as unrelenting as it is illogical. Many will find the vitriol and violence that spews from Poulter somewhat unsettling and there is a point where this extended sequence, which takes up the bulk of the running time, starts to become tedious despite the inherent tension that permeates the scene. The audience is never expected to understand Krauss’s mindset and the subsequent legal proceedings against the police officers, which apparently lasted for several years, are condensed to just a few minutes and will no doubt leave many bristling with indignation at the lack of consequences for Krauss and his sidekicks.
Although featured heavily in the marketing material, John Boyega (Attack the Block, The Force Awakens) actually has little to do as Dismukes, a security guard who attends the Algiers in an effort to prevent the exact course of events that ultimately transpired. Anthony Mackie (The Avengers, The Hurt Locker) features as one of those under assault from Krauss, as do Hannah Murray (TV’s Skins and Game of Thrones) and Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now), the only two women with any significant screen time. Despite the superficial attention given to the political, social and historical contexts that are so critical in understanding how things had reached such a crisis point, Detroit still delivers as a powerful indictment of American race relations and a reminder of how little progress has been made in the treatment of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement authorities.