One of the immediate takeaways from Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is that its relative newcomer lead, Algee Smith, should be a cinematic superstar. As Larry Reed, frontman of Motown band The Dramatics and victim of hideous police brutality, Smith shows that he can switch from charmingly suave to infectiously terrified, all the while wowing with a phenomenal singing voice. He needs to be brilliant, as do the rest of the cast, constantly trapped in intense close quarters, with Bigelow’s frantic camera lurching in for invasive close-ups in this savagely claustrophobic film.
The majority of Detroit takes place over just one night, in just one location – the Algiers Motel – during the 1967 Detroit race riots. After a prank with a starter pistol is misconstrued by law enforcement as a sniper attack, they raid the Motel, letting racist bully Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) lead the charge. Krauss and his lackeys instantly determine that the men in the Motel are guilty criminals, and round them up for a toe-curlingly violent all-night interrogation that sustains an exhausting tension for over an hour without a break. Caught in the middle of this is security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), whose uniform forces him into a queasy alliance with the police, even as a battery of racial abuse is hurled his way.
Krauss’s discovery of two white women Julie and Karen (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) sharing a room with black Vietnam veteran Greene (Anthony Mackie) kicks his bigoted fury into overdrive. As the questioning becomes ever more vicious, the tension and fear in the air become choking, and the police’s methods inspire disgust and anger in equal measure. As is Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s wont, Detroit is a dive into the psychology of men in uniform, though unlike The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, there is no attempt to ‘both sides’ the horrendous injustices committed by these authority figures.
From start to finish, we mainly follow Larry (Boyega’s leading role in the trailers turns out to have been oversold), as his concert is cancelled due to rioting before an attack on his bus home forces him to spend the night at the Algiers. The contextualising of the events in the first act takes too long, overall, but adds depth to Larry’s character and story, as well as providing foreshadowing that is harrowing in hindsight. Moments of levity do arrive every now and then, earning some uneasy laughs through being both actually funny and tempered with overwhelming anxiety about what’s coming next.
Bigelow’s eye is typically clear-eyed and unflinching, and Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography adds a veneer of frightening authenticity that throws you right into the Algiers. The bloodshed is never watered down, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous either, with the most gut-wrenching moment happening off-screen, an inspired choice that puts the audience into the chaotically confused headspace of the police’s victims. An eventual move to the hospitals and courtrooms that host the post-siege fallout loosens the tense grip established at the Algiers, but the cinematography and editing are still snappy and powerful enough to let us know that the trauma of the night can never truly fade.
A pan across a hospital corridor lingers over the sign for the morgue for an extra fraction of a moment, enough time to let the word sink in without belabouring the point. Krauss’s murder trial is framed as almost as much of an attack on the survivors of the night as the siege itself, as the police union lawyer (John Krasinski) dodges the crux of the issue to focus on the victims’ past run-ins with police. It’s a common tactic that is still disgustingly pervasive today, putting black sufferers of police brutality on trial for simply existing in a white-owned space instead of holding the offending officers accountable.
Boyega does a superb job of illustrating the effects of this continuous, spirit-sapping oppression, a calmly stoic façade hiding a burning rage just behind his eyes. In direct opposition to this, Poulter brings all of Krauss’s anger to the surface, his baby-ish features making his tall frame and room-filling voice that much more uniquely intimidating. Krauss is an unrepentant racist to the point that other white law enforcement can’t stand him, and Poulter turns in a truly villainous performance that never remotely risks falling into cartoonishness. Elsewhere, Mackie provides charismatic gravitas, and Jason Mitchell, Jacob Latimore, and Nathan Davis Jr do impressive work, despite spending most of their screentime forcibly facing a wall.
But this is still Algee Smith’s show, fear and fury giving way to bone-shaking trauma and resignation to the inevitability of racial injustice. A beautifully devastating coda shows that there’s some hope to be found, but not from the establishment, which protects its powerful racists at all costs. Detroit instils in you a ferocious anger that is only exacerbated by the fact that so little has changed in the 50 years since the events it depicts. There is no easy escape from Detroit’s cloying atmosphere, and that’s exactly as it should be.