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Detroit

Detroit

Released 25 August 2017
Director Kathryn Bigelow
Starring


John Boyega, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, Jack Reynor, Hannah Murray
Writer(s) Mark Boal
Producer(s)


Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Matthew Budman, Megan Ellison, Colin Wolson
Origin United States
Running Time 143 minutes
Genre Crime, drama, history, thriller
Rating 15A
76

Motel hell.

Kathryn Bigelow makes intelligent, provocative films that shed light on complicated political issues by presenting them in a character-driven microcosm. The most successful example of this was Zero Dark Thirty, which questioned the use of torture in America's War on Terror by making us complicit in the decisions made by Jessica Chastain's conflicted CIA operative. A fictionalised character became the conduit through which to explore vast ethical questions. Her latest film, Detroit follows a similar path by presenting a fictionalised version of true events that happened during the racially charged riots that engulfed the city in 1967. Yet, despite some excellent performances, Detroit is less successful than Bigelow's previous films.

The film begins with an animated potted history of the economic migration of Southern Black Americans to the great industrial cities of the United States. As the black communities became increasingly segregated, tensions began to rise between those communities and the police force until one night a raid on an unlicensed club brought the situation to boiling point. It is here that we enter the story. In a nearby theatre, vocal band The Dramatics are getting ready to perform when word of the riot reaches the theatre and the performance is cancelled. Singer Larry (Algee Smith) and band manager Fred (Jacob Latimore) decide to wait out the night in the Algiers Motel. When gunshots are heard near the motel, it is stormed by the authorities – so begins a night of violent interrogation led by Detroit cop Krauss (Will Poulter), during which the residents of the motel would end up beaten, bloodied and in two cases, murdered.

There is no denying that Detroit is a powerful and prescient film. Bigelow has an excellent knack for building almost unbearable tension and weaves the various narrative strands together expertly. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, using vintage lenses, seamlessly integrates archive footage into the story to give a wonderfully realistic sense of place. The performances are universally fantastic, particularly Poulter, who is startlingly menacing despite his baby-faced looks. It is John Boyega though who is the beating heart of this movie – a security guard caught up in the crossfire of the evening, occupying the no-man's land between the black community and the white authorities.

Where the film falls down is in its pacing. It is of course necessary to show the stomach-churning violence that the motel residents had to suffer but I felt that Bigelow kept this “death game” going for too long; for me, the tension eventually snapped and lessened. Then there is the issue of context; the animated opening sequence was nicely done but did not give enough context for what happened on that one night. This microcosm was not nuanced enough to stand for the whole.

All in all, I would recommend seeing Detroit. At this very specific juncture in race relations in the United States it has great relevance. However, it is a film that falls down both as a thriller and as a historical document.

- Linda O'Brien