Film

Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit review – vivid but blunt look at 1967 race riots

Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker delivers expressive thrills in this timely historical drama, but little insight into the systemic causes of racism

Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit chronicles the riots that inflamed the city in July 1967. They were a defining episode in the troubled history of race relations in the US: protests by black residents against a police raid in this effectively segregated city spilled over into five days of unrest. The National Guard were called to quell the violence that left more than 40 dead, mostly African Americans.

Bigelow is a remarkable director, one of the finest in the US today. From the high style of the vampire movie Near Dark to the adrenalised delirium of Point Break, Bigelow managed that rare trick of retaining her own voice while working within the system. Her work of late is ostensibly more ‘serious’, turning away from pulp sources to real-life subject matter like the Iraq war of The Hurt Locker or the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty.

But across all her work is an immersive ferocity, a mighty talent for staging action and a fascination with violence, both its bloody consequences and its queasy appeal. Detroit boasts many moments of the director on top form, but is an uneven, vaguely frustrating movie that reveals as much about the limitations as the expressive thrill of Bigelow’s approach.

Introducing us to the tinderbox atmosphere of Detroit on the brink of violent protest, the film is terrific. Through short, fragmentary scenes, Bigelow offers a portrait of the city that is sprawling,  panoramic, and echoes the urgent quasi-documentary style of The Hurt Locker (they share a cinematographer in Barry Ackroyd). It’s blisteringly vivid film-making that plants us in the Detroit of 50 years ago with keen immediacy.

It’s as gruelling a depiction of police-instigated race violence as I can think of, and of course finds a contemporary echo in the tragedies of our own Black Lives Matter era

The film then focuses on its central episode. Taking shelter from the disturbances, a band of promising young soul musicians called The Dramatics hole up in the annex of the Algiers Motel. There, they hang out with some young African American men and two white women. But when one of the guests fires a starter pistol out of the window, the cops and National Guardsmen gathered outside storm the hotel. A long, tense, and hard-hitting sequence follows in which the cops taunt and brutalise these young black men. Looking on helplessly is black security guard (John Boyega), unnerved and disgusted by the violence (orchestrated by Will Poulter’s patrolman) but unable to intervene.

Bigelow directs the motel scenes with a commanding control of atmosphere, a harrowing sense of claustrophobia. It’s as gruelling a depiction of police-instigated race violence as I can think of, and of course finds a contemporary echo in the tragedies of our own Black Lives Matter era. But the spectacle of these white cops humiliating and abusing blameless young black men is hard to watch: with her genius for visceral impact, Bigelow turns this into a kind of horror movie that can only be experienced with an appalled dread.

To call this sensationalism is unfair, but I did wish the movie adopted a more searching, probing attitude towards this dreadful historical episode. Beyond its (admittedly virtuoso) restaging of facts, Detroit falls short, a blunt instrument with little insight into the systemic causes behind the racism. A second viewing might reveal a more sophisticated and layered film, offering lessons for today beyond a simple reconstruction of events.

Detroit is in cinemas from August 25.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Furiosa director George Miller on the function of stories and why Mad Max is a 'cautionary tale'
Furiosa
Film

Furiosa director George Miller on the function of stories and why Mad Max is a 'cautionary tale'

The Garfield Movie review – we're not feline the tubby orange tabby's full CGI makeover
Garfield in The Garfield Movie
Film

The Garfield Movie review – we're not feline the tubby orange tabby's full CGI makeover

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger – Scorsese's tribute to duo who inspired him
Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell, 1981.
Film

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger – Scorsese's tribute to duo who inspired him

Filmmaker Melanie Manchot explains how her drama Stephen can offer hope to addicts
Stephen Giddings in Stephen
Film

Filmmaker Melanie Manchot explains how her drama Stephen can offer hope to addicts

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know