'Detroit' is set during one of the most notorious race riots in US history. It re-stages an event of racially charged police brutality in one of the city's hotels in the summer of 1967 that left three black teenagers shot dead, nine people beaten and terrorised, and the perpetrators sauntering out of the hotel as if nothing had happened.
The film's hour-long dramatic core delivers a stomach-churning microcosm of the era's race hatred, powered by blistering performances. It feels as if we are right there, right now, despite being set half a century ago and long before the events depicted in Kathryn Bigelow's 2008 Oscar-winning Iraq drama, 'The Hurt Locker' and her 2012 'Zero Dark Thirty.'
Working in brief chaotic scenes that mix in occasional shots from period footage, Bigelow, with production designer Jeremy Hindle and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, recreates downbeat Detroit during the 'white flight' era – a period that is evoked by an animated prologue that recalls the mass movement of southern black people to northern towns in their quest for work. This beautiful opener, written by Henry Louis Gates and illustrated by Jacob Lawrence's painting series, the 'Great Migration,' depicts the decades of job discrimination, residential segregation and vicious policing that led up to the 1967 Detroit riots.
During one of the film's deftly interwoven documentary sequences, an African-American man says he wishes things could be better for the Negro people. Bigelow immediately cuts to the nearly all white police department where the facts that largely determine black life chances are shown for what they are: systemic inequality, institutionalised racism, abuse of power and impunity. These social facts frame the world of the film. As a choreographer of social chaos, Bigelow shows how quickly events can spiral out of control. She also dramatises how racism operates as a deeply-rooted reality of American life rather than as merely personal prejudice.
This uncompromising standpoint is one of the film's major strengths. It enables us to see small acts of cruelty or disrespect as manifestations of invisible patterns of injustice. But such a perspective also runs the risk of over-simplification by reducing complex historical events to opposing social forces, oppressors and oppressed. Mark Boal's screenplay is sometimes weak on characterisation, as when a national guardsman, encountering a bloodied black escapee, says 'It's not right to treat people like that.'
Nevertheless the film's overall stance, emphatically against sentimentality, wishful thinking and denial, characteristics that define most Hollywood treatments of America's racial past, is worth a thousand well-meaning efforts. Bigelow's jagged, kaleidoscopic structure flouts the usual rules of character-driven narrative. 'The content dictates the form,' she says. 'To humanise the experience, it had to be as immersive and as experiential as I could possibly make it.'
Bigelow's jittery camera zooms in on a police raid on an unlicensed bar where returning black Vietnam veterans are being welcomed home. The police treat the partygoers like chattel, herding them out and lining them up at gunpoint. An angry crowd gathers. Someone smashes a shop window. A Molotov cocktail is thrown. Events escalate. Five days of mayhem were to ensue, with lootings, fires, mass arrests and 40 deaths, including a four-year-old girl mistaken for a sniper who was shot through a window – a moment shockingly captured in 'Detroit'.
Just as we settle down to watch a film that will tell this extended tale of social mayhem and rebellion, Bigelow wrong-foots us by suddenly changing tack and shifting from wide to narrow focus. The camera homes in on a motley group of black and white citizens as they converge at the city's Algiers Motel. Two friends, Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimer), arrive after a disappointing cancellation at the Fox Theatre. Larry is lead singer for the soul group, the Dramatics, about to showcase their act for Motown scouts when the audience is evacuated because of rioting.
We also meet Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard for small businesses who tries to mediate between police and locals. Two white girls from out of town (Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray) find themselves holed up with black Vietnam veteran Greene (Anthony Mackie) who has also sought refuge in the hotel. When teenage hotel guest Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) fires blanks from a starter gun out of a window as a joke, police and national guard storm the hotel and drag residents out of rooms to find the gun, killing Cooper in the commotion.
Officer Krauss, a fictionalised character played by Will Poulter, takes charge. We have earlier heard him uttering pieties about 'letting these people down,' then witnessed him shooting a looter in the back. Cautioned by his superior that he could face a murder charge, Krauss is soon out on the streets again with his gun. In the hotel, he and two fellow officers assume that Greene is pimping the girls and viciously beat him up, later taking the girls aside to grope and terrorise them.
As the black teenagers are led one by one into separate rooms to be beaten and threatened with death if they don't reveal the 'shooter', one of the girls pleads with the police that the boys are 'just kids.' A rifle barrel is poked up her dress, which is then ripped off. This is one of the film's most grotesque and almost unwatchable sequences of sexual and racial torment. Bigelow's camera goes with the black teenagers into the rooms and also remains focused on those still lined up against the wall. On hearing gunshots, the teenagers assume that they are next.
Those prolonged scenes, shot in unflinching close-up, are excruciating. The baby-faced Poulter is a sadistic bully – a little dictator, drunk on power and racial hatred. Boyega, as the conflicted 'mediator' Dismukes, tolerated by the white policemen but powerless to rein them in, recalls the young Sydney Poitier's compelling presence. Another bystander, a white national guardsman who lets some inmates escape, could end the abuse, but doesn't. Indeed, most of the guardsmen leave and say nothing about what they have witnessed. Bigelow insinuates that the police are 'acting out' their brutality, whilst also performing a 'game' of mock executions devised by Krauss.
It is as the film's scope narrows in its middle section that it reaches its disquieting zenith. The third act takes us into the courtroom with yet another change of pace and focus. Several policemen are charged with murder. Justice is not served – a legal outcome that underscores 'Detroit's' timeliness: Why is this history continually erased? Why does it still ring true today?
Bigelow, a white, privileged woman, has been criticised for creating a film about black experience because she is white and privileged. Yet her project is as brave as it is audacious. Stepping out of her own skin, using her imagination and skill as a filmmaker, she enters into others' lives to capture blow by blow the terror of experiencing law enforcers as violent, racist thugs. The harrowing and morally unsettling result is not a worthy film of social protest. There is no comforting moral uplift or heroism on offer and no satisfying resolution. Instead, by graphically laying out the conditions that make such acts possible, 'Detroit's' target is clear: white obliviousness, entitlement and denial.