Kathryn Bigelow returns with an intense take on the Detroit riots of 1967, starring British actors John Boyega and Will Poulter


Dir: Kathryn Bigelow. US. 2017. 142mins

A cauldron of anger, fear and chaos, Detroit is guided by the unbridled emotions of its imperilled characters, resulting in a drama which is at times inelegant in its rage but nonetheless produces a grim wallop. Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker, has crafted a film set in an entirely different war zone, that of the Detroit riots of 1967, laying bare the racism and police brutality that exacerbated a desperate situation. This gritty, gripping movie starts slowly but builds in intensity, culminating in sorrow and raw nerves.

His baby-faced expression belied by cold, dead eyes, Poulter startlingly portrays pure, bigoted evil

Opening on July 28 in the States and August 25 in the UK - a late-summer time frame similar to that of Bigelow’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker - it follows on from her 2012 commercial success Zero Dark Thirty ($133m worldwide). And with Force Awakens star John Boyega part of the ensemble, this Annapurna production ought to enjoy decent commercial visibility. Still, despairing subject matter may turn off some audience members, which is why good reviews will be crucial to its success.

Centred around a deadly assault that occurred at the Algiers Motel on July 25, 1967, the film initially has the feel of a sweeping, episodic narrative in which we meet different characters who are each tangentially connected to that summer’s riots in the city’s poorer African-American communities. Melvin (Boyega) is a security guard hired to protect a convenience store during the looting, while elsewhere Larry (Algee Smith) is a member of an R&B group whose big-break concert is cancelled because of the riots. These and other individuals, including a racist cop (Will Poulter), will find their paths intersecting at the Algiers once the policecome to believe that there is a lethal sniper inside the motel.

Working again with screenwriter Mark Boal (who wrote her two previous features), Bigelow immerses us in the action almost immediately, as Barry Ackroyd’s jittery camerawork captures the bedlam and danger of a full-scale riot from an intimate, street-level perspective. The combination of an aggrieved, enraged black population and a well-armed, hostile white police force is a recipe for disaster, and Detroit makes viewers feel the heat of the flames and the fury of the participants.

But first, Bigelow seeks to establish her disparate characters in a few broad strokes. For instance, Larry and his good friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) try to avoid the riots by picking up some women, and these early digressions add some lived-in texture to the historical story being told. But eventually, Detroit moves the action to the Algiers, which becomes the film’s harrowing centrepiece. For those unfamiliar with the actual events, it’s best not to reveal too much in order for the shock to have extra impact. Suffice to say that Poulter’s hair-trigger cop will lead his men in a brutal investigation of the black patrons which ends up being as psychologically traumatising as any horror movie.

It’s in this extended sequence that Bigelow amps up the claustrophobia and anxiety, the filmmaker calmly detailing how those in power can systematically strip away the humanity of their victims. His baby-faced expression belied by cold, dead eyes, Poulter startlingly portrays pure, bigoted evil, and his character’s psychopathic insistence on denigrating these terrified African-American suspects is suitably suffocating. As the one law-enforcement officer wanting to stop him, Boyega exudes stoic determination. Melvin knows full well he’s outnumbered by this cop and his cohorts, and so he must tread lightly if he is to succeed.     

Mixing archival footage with her own re-creations, Bigelow sometimes forces gravitas onto the proceedings that her film doesn’t need. Likewise, an extended finale — in which the Algiers incident is investigated and brought to trial — leaves Detroit with a somewhat conventional court-case denouement that, while accurate to the real story and effective in further provoking utrage, lacks the crackle of what came before.

At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Bigelow’s film strives to be a definitive portrait of a tragedy, and the passion of her undertaking informs every vivid scene and occasionally leads to an unfocused, sprawling epic. (Fine actors like Anthony Mackie and Jason Mitchell barely have a chance to register.) And yet, those quibbles can feel minor in the face of a roaring film that has no patience for such niceties. It’s perhaps too much to ask a movie about a riot to be a little more restrained.

Production companies: Annapurna Pictures, Harpers Ferry, Page 1

International sales: Annapurna Pictures

Producers: Megan Ellison, Kathryn Bigelow, Matthew Budman, Mark Boal, Colin Wilson

Executive producers: Greg Shapiro, Hugo Lindgren

Screenplay: Mark Boal

Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd      

Production design: Jeremy Hindle    

Editors: William Goldenberg, Harry Yoon              

Music: James Newton Howard                                

Website: www.detroit.movie

Main cast: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, Nathan Davis, Jr., Peyton Alex Smith, Malcolm David Kelley, Joseph David-Jones, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie