Kathyrn Bigelow directs John Boyega, Will Poulter and Hannah Murray in this visceral docudrama recreation of the 1967 riots and an incident of police brutality covered up during its worst night.
Let’s get it out of the way, straight off the bat, Detroit is an unmissable act of cinema. Bigelow’s current reportage style gives you a broad history lesson and then also focuses in on a one location, one night elongated set piece of sustained oppressive terror. It is a commendable and breathless recreation, daringly confident and it wounds you as a viewer. But as much as Detroit evokes a turbulent period and let’s you helplessly experience a horrendous sequence of events in an immersive experience parallel to Nolan’s Dunkirk, it is also very frustrating at times. You never really get a satisfying grip on the characters with the possible exception of Poulter’s gracious yet disgustingly racist cop composite. John Boyega’s ostensible lead is a good example of how stunted and obtuse the narrative attention span often feels. Boyega is very impressive early on as the security guard who ingratiates himself with the white cops and National Guard. He charmingly conveys a smart guy with one eye on surviving and another on keeping as many of his neighbourhood out of the crosshairs of the unchecked aggressions. His calm self-controlled interactions and crisp uniform evoke Austin Stoker’s iconic turn in Assault on Precinct 13. As he lingers in the motel annexe, subtly trying his best to stop the white authority figures from boiling over you feel him silently calculating the best outcome with each new escalation. Bigelow uses him as our avatar, we and he can see just how tragic the situation we are thrown into is, yet we have no actual power to be heroic to stop the injustice and violence from unfurling. Then once the long night is over and the cover-up begins, Boyega’s everyman finds himself behind bars, implicated in the crimes he tried to avert. And we just leave him behind there for too much of the final act. We get neither chance to see him save lives (fantasy maybe but…) nor get to stay with him when his own story takes an even more exciting turn. Maybe Bigelow feels we have seen these movies too many times before? Maybe the truth is too fuzzy or too unpalatable to stand scrutiny and she wisely brushes over it? Maybe there are legal implications of looking too deeply into the corruption of the courtcase that followed? Whatever the reason though, every time our de facto protagonist finds himself in a position of compulsive attention, the movie shoves off away from him. What it moves off to each time is not unworthy, but you cannot help but wish we stayed with Boyega’s powerful hero. Or even Poulter’s reprehensible but complex nasty. Sometimes a bit of centring goes a long way.