Running time 2hr 23min
FOR all the awards pizazz, the recent films of Kathryn Bigelow remain problematic cases – Zero Dark Thirty has been dogged by readings as a pro-torture tract, while it’s far from clear if The Hurt Locker was able to capitalise upon its billing as a ‘realistic’ Iraq War movie. The announcement of Detroit, the director’s take on one of the murkiest episodes in
US racial history, was met, therefore, with uneasy rumblings in many quarters – though Bigelow’s reputation as an unrepentant Bushie is probably undeserved, there was always the prospect that a current of conservatism could poison her latest venture, producing a distasteful, even revisionist, narrative.
Happily, Detroit is not only a movie that largely lives up to its docudrama aspirations, but a piece of ruthlessly activist cinema that is never afraid to startle and polarise and provoke, encasing the viewer in a paranoid cocoon from which they are unlikely to emerge completely intact. There’s more than a hint of Dunkirk about the film’s unrelenting anxiety, but whereas Christopher Nolan’s masterful contribution to the summer zeitgeist was a strictly historical work, the struggle depicted herein, between black youth and the white state, is one definitive of the modern American psyche, that grinds endlessly on at an incalculable cost. There’s nothing in the way of a resolution, let alone a final-reel, punch-the-air triumph; it’s a cold, angry document, possessed of a palpable sense of indignation.
In case you missed the buzz: in 1967, the city of Detroit, in the grip of a racially-charged riot from which it has never recovered, witnessed the deaths of three black teenagers in an apparent act of gross police overreach. On the scene was a
security guard (played here by John Boyega) who, Bigelow credibly alleges, has been wrongly implicated in the killings, in the interest of protecting a gang of racist cops (embodied by a sneering, sadistic Will Poulter). The shocking events are pieced together with journalistic precision and shot with a technical aptitude that might, in less accomplished hands, have diminished the raw brutality of the subject matter, but which actually enhances it, every blow and volley landing as sickeningly hard as it should.
Much like Nolan, Bigelow takes a deliciously paradoxical approach to her characters, allowing us into the most private of spaces and setting us in the middle of the direst of situations while maintaining an uncompromising distance. Detroit’s success is anchored in this stylistic quirk, which steers an explosive premise clear of tactlessness without resorting to censorship. Even the casting choices are bound to raise eyebrows – baby-faced Will Poulter, a London native, is in decidedly foreign territory here, and his loathsome part was an undoubtedly difficult act to carry off, but the performances are striking and believable.
If, in this post-Schindler’s List age, there remained any question of what CANNOT be dramatised, Detroit should silence the pessimists, taking a flagrant true-life injustice (one indicative of black America’s plight today, in the eyes of many) and converting it into a searing,
unabatingly vicious vision.