Detroit is a harrowing, relentless and intensely angry film – as it should be

Shortly after the first Molotov cocktail is lobbed, the city is engulfed in flames and fury.

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Near the end of Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s dramatisation of the riots that tore through that city in July 1967, a white cop tells the black prisoners he has beaten that they can go free, as long as they promise never to say anything about what has been done to them. The film amounts to a concentrated rejection of that demand. It is a harrowing, relentless and intensely angry movie. As it should be.

After an animated prologue explaining the clash between civil rights and socio-economic wrongs in America in the 1960s, the film kicks off properly with heavy-handed white police raiding an unlicensed late-night shindig celebrating the return of a black Vietnam veteran. Continuing the hand-held, reportage-style film-making to which she was first drawn in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and her cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (a longtime Ken Loach collaborator) offer a street-level view of how the riot sparks into life, splicing actual footage from the era into their bristling reconstructions.

Shortly after the first Molotov cocktail is lobbed, the city is engulfed in flames and fury. Mark Boal’s screenplay picks out figures from across Detroit who are caught up in the violence. The twitchy, sadistic cop Krauss (Will Poulter) is reprimanded for shooting dead a fleeing looter, then turned back out on the streets with a loaded gun. Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), who were due to perform in a soul revue, duck into the nearby Algiers Motel for safety; the pink neon shimmering in the green pool promises a pocket of tranquility. Trouble finds them, though, when cops arrive searching for an unidentified gunman. Leading the raid is Krauss.

The film’s pivotal figure is the African-American security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). His placatory nature leads him to fall between two stools. The kid whose persecution by police he helps to avert accuses him of being an Uncle Tom. The National Guardsmen, to whom he takes a conciliatory pot of coffee, refer to him as “boy” and ask: “When do you think the Negroes will quit?” He is present throughout the long central section at the motel, during which the cops threaten and torture the guests, and it is through his eyes that much of the horror is filtered. If all you knew about Detroit was its poster image, which shows Melvin flanked by cops in the melee, you might take him for its defiant hero. In fact, it is his inactivity and helplessness that make the movie traumatic.

Boyega’s performance amounts to one long charged reaction shot with tremors of stifled panic. We look to him for our emotional cues, and for some promise of intervention, but they don’t come, which is what renders the film so frightening. Melvin realises too late that he will pay for trying to play fairly a game that was rigged from the start – a game in which white men own the board, and all the pieces.

That central section is so gruelling and tightly-controlled that the remainder of the movie falls apart in the aftermath. Its focus dissipates (there’s no indication of how or when the rioting abated) and it limps on through a court case and an epilogue. The script also falls prey to an overstated sense of irony: a sympathetic cop asks a bleeding victim “Who could do this to someone?” hardly suspecting it was his colleagues; a white nurse needlessly advises a black hospital visitor to “be gentle” around his friend, who has just endured hours of torture.

These flaws can’t dilute the film’s motivating sense of rage, or its portrayal of racism and machismo as a kind of state-sanctioned performance. During the opening raid on the bar, a cop feigns a violent interrogation in a locked room in order to intimidate the revellers listening outside. That scene is played as nervous comedy but it returns in monstrously multiplied form at the motel, where suspects are subjected to mock executions and forced to participate in the frenzied pantomime until no one knows any more what their roles are. Bigelow’s skill in maintaining an analytical eye, no matter how inflamed the action becomes, is to be commended. The film’s continuing, fiery topicality, however, is beyond her control. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia