50 years ago, America experienced one of its worst times of civil unrest. The 1967 riots in Detroit remain one of the deadliest riots in US history. So for a film to be made of this sorry chapter, you need one of the most skilled filmmakers working today.
Step forward Katheryn Bigelow, director of this skillfully produced film, Detroit (ably assisted by the writer Mark Boal). Her previous work has taken on sensitive historical events (e.g. the Iraq War and the hunt for Osama Bin Landen (in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty respectively) with huge success. And thankfully, she brings the same level of gravitas to Detroit.
The main thrust of the film focuses on the events of the Algiers Motel ‘incident’, one of the most brutal and controversial episodes of the riots. There is a long build up to this, however, and much of the preamble is rather shoddily done (leading to accusations that it left too much out for such an important political issue). Interspersing news footage of the riots with filmed sequences feels forced at times, and there is a sense that the film is asking you to rely on previous knowledge of just how bad race riots can get.
But once the film gets to the second act, the Algiers Motel sequence, Bigelow’s panache for tension is on full show. It is a gripping hour (or so), which artfully builds the tension throughout. You are invested in the main protagonists by this time (with Algee Smith excelling as Larry), and the two brutal cops play the part of institutionalized police racism with scary accuracy (and the slightly masochistic looks of Will Poulter only adds to this). The whole sequence shreds the nerves, leaving you emotionally exhausted after its brutal climax.
However, as a whole, it tries to pack too much in and ends up rather bloated. The subsequence court case is critical to the politics of the story, but from a purely cinematic perspective, it feels tagged on and makes the film half an hour longer than it needs to be. Also, while the central cast is strong on the whole, there are some very middling performances from supporting characters.
Detroit is an engrossing, difficult watch. It highlights the historical and sadly on-going issues of civil rights and police brutality. Despite the bloated running time, it is to be applauded for its marvelous tension-building qualities, its maverick approach, and historical poignancy.
7/10 – a bloated offering, but worth it for the superb second act, and its political message.