review by rebecca Wynne-walsh

From the very opening frames, Kathryn Bigelow’s latest offering, Detroit, makes a conscious decision to walk a very thin line between documentary and narrative film. It begins with a brief but dramatic animated sequence (not dissimilar in style from the animated sequences in 2010’s Howl) outlining the history of black and white racial migration in the United States. After this the tone abruptly changes and Bigelow’s style immediately shifts from surrealist to hyperrealist.

 The camera moves freely and unnervingly close to the faces of the ensemble of characters. Scenes from the film are intercut with both camera footage and still photographs from the titular riot of 1967. Mark Boal’s script feels masterfully unscripted, natural. Boal and Bigelow prove once again in Detroit that the partnership remains a powerful one. Several stories are interwoven in the lead up to and during the central event, the Algiers Motel Incident, in which three civilians, three black teenagers, were killed and brutally tortured alongside nine others.

I draw attention to the assorted filmmaking techniques because, in this film, the filmmaking is so skilled, so controlled that it becomes invisible. Scoring is unnoticeable so that the Motown music of one of the lead characters Larry (played intelligently and soulfully by Algee Smith) poignantly comes to the fore as his dream, his livelihood and his prayer. Camera movement is neither steady nor rapid but swift and smooth, moving as if it is a character itself. The performances of each member of the expansive cast are each excellent and fitting. Each performance is, importantly, highly naturalistic and believable, in Will Poulter’s case, terrifying so, in Jacob Latimore’s case, heartbreakingly, and in John Boyega’s, frustratingly.

Boyega’s work in Detroit is undoubtedly his finest to date and will possibly remain so for the foreseeable future. I have never seen fear acted so genuinely yet subtly on screen. Bigelow’s film features a plethora of up-and-coming young talent, aside from those already mentioned, Jack Reynor, Samira Wiley, Anthony Mackie and Hannah Murray all feature prominently.

The massive cast results from the massive scale of the film in question. While the Algiers Motel Incident is the centre around which the film is orchestrated there are many deviations, short scenes deepening the context, driving home the terror of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion and showing us as much of the people that were not involved as the people that were. A man in a factory is told his son’s body has been found, another is shot while taking groceries home to his wife, a young black girl looking out the window at the commotion is mistaken for a sniper and shoot and killed by a member of the national guard. Detroit effectively depicts the black citizens of Detroit and indeed America being failed by those enlisted to protect and serve them. This is seen never more devastating than when the brutally beaten Larry awakens in hospital surrounded by his friends as they beg him to explain what happened. All Larry can say is “the police”. In a moment of betrayed understanding Larry’s friends break into tears as their helplessness becomes apparent. 

Bigelow's film never allows the audience to take the easy way out by pointing all their hatred at Poulter's villainous cop, while his cruelty is clear, it is also clear that he is simply a symptom of a corrupt and cruel system, to which no easy solution is be presented. Detroit is not only and excellent film but an important one that everyone should not only go and see but go and engage with, that such atrocities may be learned from.