Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie
Detroit sees the award winning team behind The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty united to look at a dark incident from America’s past. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal turn their considerable talents to 1967 and the civil unrest that gripped Detroit. During the midst of the riots the Algiers Hotel became the scene to an atrocity that gripped the nation, and became a symbol of authoritarian abuse against black Americans.
In 1967 the racial tension in Detroit exploded into a riot (one of hundreds that plagued America during that year). With the National Guard patrolling the street, sniper fire frequently coming from rooftops, rioters looting and burning buildings, and police beating any African American they find on the street after dark, security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is overworked and with little sleep. When a series of shots are fired from the Algiers Hotel, Dismukes arrives to find one person already dead, and a number of white police officers torturing the predominantly black residents in hopes of gaining a confession.
This is the powerhouse cinema you’ve come to expect of Bigelow. She holds us in the moment, and makes us experience it with the gut wrenching extended sensations of tension that is associated with it, rather than shying away. The Algiers Hotel incident acts as the backbone to Detroit, with the riots and the subsequent fallout acting more as a prelude and a coda (respectively). It is at times uncomfortable cinema, but all the more worthy for that. We get a sense of the horrors of that night, the reasons why they were inflicted, and experience the outrage that such deeds were not only perpetrated, but by the lack of swift justice, given a degree of tacit approval by the very institutions meant to prevent such things. More terrifying still, are the modern associations we can make with abuses of power in the news today, and wonder how much has changed, and how much there is still to go.
Anchoring this are a number of extraordinary performances from accomplished actors, but two really stand out from the pack – John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), and Will Poulter (The Revenant).
Playing the real life Melvin Dismukes, Boyega gives a contained performance, that leaves a lot simmering just below the surface. He is a man trapped between worlds and not entirely accepted in either. One that is trying to do the right thing, but utterly aware of the precariousness of the situation. Boyega gives you an insight into this struggle, through his subtle performance, allowing little to come out, but never leaving audiences in doubt about his feelings.
By contrast Will Poulter’s policeman Krauss is a man with little to hide in the ways of his opinions. Poulter creates a man that is sure of the righteousness of his actions, despite the obvious ignorance that it comes from. There is no doubt that Krauss is a racist abusing his power, but Poulter reigns in his villainous nature, making it more mater of fact. The result is chilling, but its understated nature makes it even more so.
Powerful, effecting cinema. Detroit is certainly a film that will be in consideration come Oscar time.