Review: Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow (still the only woman to win an Oscar for Best Director) delivers a searing account of racially charged police brutality with Detroit. Immediate and intense, it’s a visceral jolt of a film that’s not easy to shake off.

Set in the times of the race riots in Detroit in 1967, it hones in on one night in particular, the infamous Algiers Motel incident. Over the course of several agonising hours, a group of policemen terrorise, and kill, three young black men because they believed they were being shot at.

One of the cops is signposted at the film’s beginning as being impulsive, and unnecessarily aggressive. When he shoots a looter in the back in an early scene, we notice a lack of remorse on his part when he’s given a dressing down by his superior officer.

This young policeman, Philip Krauss, is played by Will Poulter, who for better or worse has the kind of face which will see him play villains for the rest of his career. With wickedly arched eyebrows, he resembles Pennywise the Clown from Stephen King’s It.

This, and the actor’s intensity, make him the perfect man to play this bullying alpha male who uses the power of his position in the police force to satisfy his own contemptible agenda.

Among those kept under his sadistic arrest in the motel are a group of young people who include a soul singer on the verge of hitting the big time, his friend and manager, an ex-marine army officer, and a couple of white girls from Ohio who have met these men for the first time that night.

While most of the people of colour in the town have stayed indoors due to the volatile atmosphere in the streets, these innocent youths had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. For some, their lives ended that night, and for the others, they would be scarred indelibly.

For the audience, this is a harrowing, anger-inducing experience. Like Bigelow’s best film (until now) The Hurt Locker, it is a lean, tautly structured film, every scene of it’s near two and a half hour running time is essential.

Poulter makes a huge impact as the merciless Krauss, and to the other extreme, Algee Smith lights up the screen as the gentle and idealistic singer Cleveland Larry Reed.

This is a very sad chapter in America’s history, and it’s no wonder the film has been largely ignored there, despite stellar reviews.

The only criticism that could be levelled at the film is that the director, the writer and the other three producers are all white. Surely some input from a person of colour would have been a good idea.

Nevertheless, this is one of the most riveting, important and well crafted films of the year.


Detroit is currently in national release

Richard Leathem @dickiegee