After meeting acclaim and no little controversy with both their previous collaborations, the Iraq war bomb-squad drama The Hurt Locker, and hunt-for-Bin-Laden procedural Zero Dark Thirty, screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow now tackle even more contentious territory with this dramatisation of disputed real-life events during the Detroit race riots of 1967.
At its centre is a night of terror at an urban motel, where white city police investigating gunfire left behind a trail of broken and bloodied African-American bodies. It’s a choice of subject that instantly suggests the new film is using the turmoil of the past to comment on ongoing law-enforcement issues in the current era of Black Lives Matter.
Certainly, this vivid, at times harrowing film is likely to stir up debate, not least from those who’d argue that this is not a story white film-makers should even be telling. That said, Boal and Bigelow’s approach is nuanced and far from conventional. It starts, for instance, with a potted history of post-slavery migration, told through folk-art paintings, to account for the presence of black-dominated ghettos in the northern state of Michigan.
Only then does it set about recreating the explosive events of 1967, where those same districts went up in flames, a tinderbox ignited by perceptions of heavy-handed policing. Atmospheric archive footage from the period is used to bolster the film’s authentic-looking unfolding action, which picks out disparate characters in the swirl of destruction, including British actor John Boyega’s wary, conciliatory security guard, and Algee Smith as a would-be soul singer who’s crushed when the riots force the cancellation of his debut showcase.
Their paths are to converge in the fateful events at the Algiers Motel, where the baddest apple in the Detroit force (Will Poulter, another Brit) takes centre stage in an extended sequence of abusive mental and physical violence that’s so claustrophobic and unremittingly upsetting it pretty much overwhelms the rest of the movie.
In some ways, that’s a failure of judgment on the film-makers’ part, since it obscures what’s a daring decision to tackle a Civil Rights drama without the presence of a potent African-American orator to give expression to the anger prompted by such events. Instead, there’s a more subtle recognition here that the progress of social change is about the development of consciousness in individuals, something signalled by the understated yet telling performances of Boyega and Smith.
While a certain number of points for credibility are scored by having real-life witnesses to the Algiers Motel carnage take part in the movie’s research, audiences might still prefer the emotional release of grand speechifying. Instead, the film leaves us in reflective mood, sensing that what we’ve witnessed is part of an ongoing continuum, not a closed-off report from the past.
As such, Detroit is an expansive, angry, somewhat ragged, but always engaging watch. A vital, provocative statement on the oppressive power structures embedded deeply in American society, it suggests we’re on a very long road towards a fully shared recognition of the need to change.
Detroit is released in cinemas on Friday 25 August