I'm not sure rave reviews or buzzing awards talk are enough to express the amplitude of what director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal achieve in Detroit, a film about race riots from half a century ago. It's a hardcore masterpiece that digs into our violent past to hold up a dark mirror to the systemic racism that still rages in the here and now. Tragically, this incendiary topic could not be more timely or in need of clarifying debate. The movie begins with panels from the Great Migration, tempera paintings by Jacob Lawrence that show the post-World War I movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in search of the promised land. They found something quite different – and equally soul-destroying.
Bigelow picks up her part of the story in the summer of 1967, with the streets of the Motor City teeming with tension fueled by bigotry, unemployment and horrendous inequities in education and housing. On July 23rd, police raided an unlicensed bar in a black neighbourhood, herding customers like cattle and prodding them to react. In retaliation, windows are smashed, stores are looted, homemade bombs are detonated and the area is turned into a blazing war zone, with the arrival of National Guard tanks completing the picture. Commonly known as the 12th Street Riot, the event is recreated by the director and the restless, prowling camera of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, all with the urgency of a docudrama. The Detroit PD and the Michigan State Police are assigned to bring order out of the chaos they helped create. Suddenly, 50 years are erased and the past is present as names like Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile echo in our heads, along with the still-crying need to shout "Black Lives Matter".
Still, Detroit is far more than a liberal howl against the escalating toxicity of racism in America. Bigelow, with the same immersive intensity that Christopher Nolan brings to Dunkirk, smacks us down in the middle of a brutal historical event so we can see it – and feel it – for ourselves. Her battlefield in microcosm is the Algiers Motel, barely a mile from where the riots began. The place is a hangout for hookers and druggies, but also a last resort when there's nowhere to run from the chaos outside.
The Algiers is where Larry Reed (the superb Algee Smith) takes shelter. He's the lead singer of the Dramatics, a soul group whose local appearance is cut short because of the rioting. So Reed and his buddy Fred (Jacob Latimore) hit the motel and party with two white girls from Ohio, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Justified's Kaitlyn Dever). Later they meet up with Carl (Jason Mitchell, so good as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton), a local who uses a starter pistol to make a point: "When you're black, it's almost like having a gun pointed at your face." It's then that Carl fires a blank out the window at the National Guard. If hell hadn't already broken loose, it does so now.
Mistakenly thinking there's a sniper at the Algiers, police call in a riot squad led by Krauss, played by 24-year-old British actor Will Poulter (The Revenant) as a poster boy for every white racist cop horror story you can imagine, and some you can't. If this cop shows any redeeming features, we don't see them here – and he's especially incensed thinking the two white girls are having sex with black men. A local security guard named Melvin Dismukes, played with restraint and besieged humanity by the outstanding John Boyega, does his best to calm the hotheads. But Krauss is nothing less than a battering ram of institutional rot that stomps everything in its path.
This section of the film is Detroit at its most raw and riveting; it's also more nightmare-inducing than you can possibly believe. The film makes you experience the gun-to-the-temple terror of advanced interrogation, as suspects are told to line up and press their faces to a wall. Anthony Mackie, one of the stars of Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, is a standout as Greene, a paratrooper just returned from 'Nam who is not exempted from the Krauss treatment. This involves taking a black suspect into a room and firing into the floor, so those outside will think someone's been murdered. It's called a "death game," used to coerce confessions – but on this night death becomes very real, ending with three unarmed black civilians dead and two white females and seven black males brutally beaten. Not even in Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker (for which Bigelow became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar) has this filmmaker done more to shatter an audience's nerves.
What really happened at the Algiers Motel that night? Acclaimed author John Hersey wrote a 1968 book on the incident. Boal, however, did his own research, conducting interviews with civilian, police and military participants in the riots and direct survivors of the Algiers Motel incident, including Reed and Dismukes. By the very nature of the material, the script must interpret what exactly was said and done. Bigelow and her screenwriter, no strangers to dramatic license, will clearly be subject to scrutiny over the real-life figures they name and those they fictionalise. Yet the film's few missteps never compromise its core integrity and cinematic daring. You watch it in a fever, scalded by sequences that are hard to watch and impossible to ignore. It has the adrenaline punch of a thriller and the deep-seated sorrow that comes with watching history repeat itself.
The upshot is that three police officers and the railroaded Dismukes, who faced anger from both sides of the case, are charged with felonious assault, conspiracy, murder and conspiracy to commit civil rights abuse. The last part of the film follows the trials, with John Krasinski as the sleazy defence attorney – and it's hardly a spoiler to point out that all were allowed to skate. Perhaps those fixed days in court are included to, as Bigelow says, "agitate for change." But Detroit wouldn't be one of the best and most important films of the year if it didn't also address the need for healing. In a climactic shot, the movie shows us Smith as Larry Reed, now a choirmaster, his face reflecting a hard-won peace. It's a transcendent moment in a blunt-force film that takes a piece out of you.