26th Aug2017

‘Detroit’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Review by Matthew Turner

Stars: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole | Written by Mark Boal | Directed by Kathryn Bigelow


Kathryn Bigelow’s third collaboration with screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) is a powerful, angry drama about racism, police brutality and the complicity of silence. Though it focuses on an incident that took place exactly fifty years ago, it feels horrifyingly relevant today and will leave you shaking with rage.

Detroit begins with white police officers raiding a black, after-hours drinking club in July 1967 and violently mistreating its patrons, an incident that quickly flares up into the Detroit Riots and brings the National Guard to the streets of the city. Meanwhile, at a nearby theatre, aspiring singer Larry (Algee Smith) is devastated when the rioting outside forces the closure of the venue, right before his cusp-of-fame group The Dramatics are due to follow Martha Reeves and the Vandellas on stage.

Seeking refuge from the violence, Larry and his best friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) take shelter in the Algiers Motel, where they flirt with two white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) and meet a number of partying young black men, including cocky grand-stander Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) and ex-Marine Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie), recently returned from Vietnam.

However, when Cooper drunkenly fires a starter pistol at the police outside the motel, the night descends into a terrifying ordeal, as racist cop Krauss (Will Poulter) and his two sidekicks (Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole) burst into the motel looking for a sniper and proceed to take everyone prisoner, employing physical and psychological torture that leads inexorably to murder. The events are witnessed by level-headed black security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who initially tagged along intending to provide a calming influence, but finds himself powerless to stop proceedings as the horror unfolds.

As if all that wasn’t upsetting enough, the film’s third act details the trial of the three cops (with Dismukes pulled in as a co-defendant), which piles on the sense of outrage and injustice until you want to scream out in anger and frustration.

Boal’s impressively researched script, assembled from first-hand accounts of the incident, cleverly pulls together a large number of characters and perspectives without short-changing anyone’s story. The effect is devastating on a number of levels – we feel the pure terror of Larry and the other prisoners, while also experiencing Melvin’s agonising powerlessness.

Bigelow’s direction is exceptional throughout, particularly during the lengthy, sickening motel section (more terrifying than any recent horror movie), which seemingly unfolds in real time, like a waking nightmare. In particular, Bigelow creates unbearable tension, alive to the fact that one wrong word could have deadly repercussions; consequently, the moment that the cops discover the presence of the white girls brings its own queasy escalation as you sense their hatred and outrage boiling up inside them.

The performances are exceptional, across the board. Boyega, in particular, projects a remarkable sense of calm and dignity that brings to mind Denzel Washington (surely a key influence on his performance), while Poulter is properly terrifying as an all too convincing bigoted sadist who is perhaps lashing out, having already been reprimanded by his boss for shooting a looter in the back earlier that day.

Similarly, Agee and Latimore are both heart-breaking as the best friends on the brink of great changes in their lives (their musical career sub-plot is genuinely moving), while Mackie is compelling as the world-weary soldier who finds himself in an impossible position, stripped of his authority.

Brilliantly directed and superbly acted, Detroit is a vitally important and deeply disturbing drama with an unavoidable contemporary resonance that forces you to reflect on just how little we’ve progressed in the last fifty years. Unmissable, and one of the best films of the year.

***** 5/5


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