Set during the Summer of 1967, Detroit focuses on a small, but infamous, event that took place during the 1967 Detroit riots. The event in question occurred at the Algiers motel where shots fired from a starting pistol were met with a heavy handed, and racially motivated, police response. We follow several characters, including musician Larry Reed (Aglee Smith), racist police officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) and onlooker security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), on this fateful night.
With all that’s been happening in recent years regarding racial tensions across America it is easy to sit through Detroit thinking that nothing has changed. Clearly with recent events providing a mirror image of the events depicted in Detroit make it uncomfortable viewing for anyone who thinks the dark days of 60s America are a long way in the past. Granted black people (and any other minority) are not discriminated against to the extent they have different seating areas in restaurants and buses but systematic racism (particularly within the police force) remains a very real and thorny issue.
This is obviously not Kathryn Bigelow’s first attempt at tackling a major political discussion point in modern America. The Hurt Locker took on the Iraq War and Zero: Dark Thirty threw itself into the torture and abuse of human rights debate (Bigelow was ludicrously compared to Leni Riefenstahl and the film was considered, by people who didn’t pay attention and are incapable of separating the writer and the character, to be pro-torture). Similar accusations were thrown at Detroit for containing pornographic violence, but surely to label the violence 'pornographic' you yourself had to turned on by it?
Detroit is quite a long film (clocking in at 140 odd minutes) and becomes quite an ordeal to sit through as the suffering the cops subjected their suspects to takes up a good hour of runtime, making the film incredible draining. This is how the filmmaker intended, the blows felt by the majority black suspects feel painful, they look real and the film's raw style of documentary filmmaking (the film was shot by Greengrass regular Barry Ackroyd) makes the violence feel realistic but in no way gratuitous and pornographic.
The film meanders somewhat as it tries to introduce to the cast of characters who would have their life forever changed from this night on. The time spent with the characters is vital because it gets you engaged with the characters thus making their ordeal all the more arduous. Will Poulter does a stunning job as the film’s main antagonist, and acting as one the film’s main victims is Aglee Smith’s Larry Reed who shows strong signs of PTSD following the traumatic event.
The end result is all too depressing at its been repeated through the latter half of 20th Century American history and beyond. That, coupled with the fact that the world still faces similar problems, makes Detroit an infuriating but worthy watch.