The year is 1967 and Michigan, Detroit, has been reduced to a post-apocalyptic, smouldering pit of ash and rubble. A product of the 12th Street riot which systematically divided the people by the colour of their skin. This provides the backdrop to Kathryn Bigelow’s first movie since Zero Dark Thirty and the imagery is every bit as raw as its predecessor. So, is Detroit any good?
The tone is set from the very beginning. A cop raid on an after hours joint proves to be a ticking time bomb when the illegal residents are lined up in the street like cattle. It draws the unwanted attention of the locals and tempers begin to flare. ‘What did they do?’, shouts a man from the back of the crowd. A question that seems to be the resonating echo throughout the entire ordeal. But the reality is the impact of decades of racial oppression and this is the catalyst that reduced Detroit into a war zone. Windows are smashed, stores are looted and buildings are doused in petrol bombs. Nothing is sacred. A city in flames. And, as a means to disperse the riots, the government deploy the National Guard into the city.
Bigelow is renown for tension building but here we’re thrust into chaos from the offset and she keeps up the momentum, beat for beat, when it counts. A group of young, African American men, desperately seeking refuge from the treacherous streets, find themselves at the Algiers Motel where a number of people are partying the night away. Among the group is Larry (Algee Smith), lead singer of Motown group The Dramatics. While still bruised from his gig being cancelled due to the riots, he blows off some steam with two sisters visiting from Ohio (Games of Thrones’ Hannah Murray and Justified’s Kaitlyn Dever).
Continuing with the narrative, the group encounter Carl (Jason Mitchell) whose bitter resolution toward white supremacy becomes intimidating and violent, brandishing a pistol and scaring the girls. It’s a fake. But that doesn’t stop him from opening fire on the National Guard positioned outside the motel in an act of pure, stupid, delinquency. The results are fatally consequential as the National Guard turn the motel into target practice.
This brings the attention of Will Poutier’s bigot cop, Krauss. Don’t be fooled by his angel face as Krauss makes use of the riots as a green light to exercise his deconstructed values of a fair society. Along with his posse of bent cops and the National Guard, Krauss forcefully drags each member of the motel and lines them up with their faces to the wall.
This also gets the attention of Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a street-savvy, private security guard who is brave enough to speak out but knows exactly when to keep it zipped. Instead, he does what he can to help the suspects but according to Krauss, ‘Everyone is a suspect’.
Bigelow and, long time collaborator, writer Mark Boal embark on a portion of the film that is sent to unsettle and disturb. Shot in real time, the scenes that proceed warrant some elicit and emotional performances from its actors as they are physically and psychologically beaten and broken down, piece by piece. It’s a difficult thing to watch at times as the suspects (but let’s start calling them victims) are dragged from room to room in a ‘game’ of truth or die.
The remaining moments of the movie deal with the aftermath of the horrific events. Three are dead and someone needs to take responsibility. But there are no happy endings, even our protagonist, Melvin, is in the firing line as he is antagonised by two detectives. The same detectives aim to bring down Krauss and his accomplices. However, in a court room with a white judge and predominantly white jury, the victims receive no retribution for their friends.
It’s probably important to point out that this isn’t a platform for Bigelow to bash the Police. This is a story about an isolated incident, confined within the backdrop of one of the worst riots in history. Bigelow’s film could not be more timely. In a society sadly still suffering from racial bigotry, this could be her message to a white supremacist America. A wake up call.