Based on fact, but filling in the blanks with some licence, Detroit centres on the Detroit riots of 1967. The summer of that year was a pivotal moment in modern American history. The country was beset by growing political and social upheaval. The escalating US military engagement in Vietnam and decades of racial injustice and repression feulled the unrest.
The epicentres of this discontent and simmering rage were the nation’s major cities. Practices of systemic discrimination in housing and education, and growing unemployment in African-American communities were particularly prevalent.
Detroit is primarily set two nights after the Detroit unrest started. A report of gunshots in the vicinity of a National Guard staging area prompted a wave of action. The Detroit Police, Michigan State Police, Michigan Army National Guard and a local private security guard seized an annex of the nearby Algiers Motel.
Flouting procedural rules, several policemen viciously interrogated motel guests. This included conducting a “death game” in an attempt to intimidate someone … anyone, into confessing. Guns were drawn, shots were fired and men and women were brutally beaten.
The up-close-and-personal approach taken by director Kathryn Bigelow mirrors the technique she mastered in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. In The Hurt Locker, Bigelow successfully put audiences on the ground in Iraq; and in Zero Dark Thirty, directly inside Osama Bin Laden’s compound.
Detroit starts out as a multi-layered depiction of events surrounding the chaos of the times, before introducing us to the key players. The film generates anger – palpable anger at the treatment of the African-Americans. You gain a real understanding of the hostility prevalent at the time. Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is a feature.
One of the strongest performances is from Will Poulter (We’re The Millers). He plays the white cop who feels he carte blanche to do as he pleases. John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) assumes the role of a black man with two jobs – one as a security guard – out to diffuse the situation around him as best he can. He watches closely and sees all. But he only steps in when he feels he can positively influence the way events play out.
Detroit is another fine example of movie making at its compelling best.