Working again with screenwriter Mark Boal, director Kathryn Bigelow follows up their previous collaborations, the remarkably tense, Oscar-winning Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker (2008) and the overwhelmingly dense Zero Dark Thirty (2012), with another dramatic retelling of real events. This time, however, we’re going further back in time, to Detroit, 1967. The Motor City, as now, was a dangerous place back then, an urban sprawl terminally on the verge of a racially charged explosion as tensions became elevated to a feverish pitch. As a tipping point is finally reached, Bigelow delves into the ugly, violated spaces created by overlapping black and white disgust, hatred and fear. Things get ugly very swiftly as dozens of city blocks are transformed into what looks like an Eastern European war zone, with looting and snipers commonplace.
Bigelow’s mantra has so often been to place the viewer uncomfortably close to the constantly changing, kaleidoscopic impressions created by the pulsating drama over which her lens roves like an omnipotent eye. The claustrophobic immediacy of Detroit (2017) is almost enough to elicit a physical reaction, especially during the film’s tense centrepiece which takes up the majority of its lengthy runtime. After a party culminates in an angry black man aiming his starter’s pistol out of a window, dozens of officers and National guardsmen are drawn, blood boiling, to the disconcertingly real sound coming from the Algiers Motel like bees to the smell of nectar on a warm summer breeze.
A trio of young police officers, led by Krauss (Will Poulter), take the initiative in attempting to uncover the source of the ‘gunfire’ by rounding up the predominantly black clientele in the building’s downstairs area. Through verbal intimidation, manhandling and threats of murder they attempt to extract information. Yet their motivations are far more base, for in every interaction between the civilians and their captors, the position of power the officers hold becomes a prism through which lines of race and status and moral corruption are refracted with toxic, terrifying precision.
The tussle of complex emotions inside the jittery officers, including racial tensions reverberating along a live wire, are like a lit fuse looking for a place to explode. The men are not mindful of the outlet for their primal yearnings either. This is especially true in the case of the hotheaded Krauss who already has a murder charge hanging over him for shooting a fleeing, unarmed black man in the back in the days prior. Also dragged into this volatile scenario is a black security guard (John Boyega) whose skin colour sets him up as a potential convenient fall-guy for corrupt officialdom. And also present are members of an all-black band, The Dramatics, led by lead singer Larry Reed (the superb Algee Smith), whose back-story is detailed in early scenes with a much-anticipated performance abandoned because of social unrest outside the venue. This fateful night will end with lives lost and a city’s psyche irreparably damaged.
Seamlessly inserting real-life reportage from the time does give the film an almost documentary feel at times, and Bigelow, as always, has a great eye for casting relative unknowns in key roles, many of whom have compelling, ‘interesting’ faces. You could argue the perspectives (including the lack of a meaningful female one) are weighted heavily for over-the-top provocation rather than the more balanced viewpoints they could offer. Yet despite the noxious, unsavoury nature of this film, which will leave you with an ache in the pit of your stomach, it’s undeniably effective as a tense, skilfully drawn-out drama. It may not be as compelling or as multi-layered as her previous two masterworks, but Detroit is certainly another impressively authentic piece of cinema from Bigelow. Ultimately though, we might query whether its somewhat simplified re-shaping of events offers anything much in the way of fresh insights into problems that have neither been expunged from society or confronted with any more success in the depressingly long decades since Detroit.