Simon Dillon reviews Kathryn Bigelow's gripping film about the Algiers motel killings during the 1967 Detroit riots.


In Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow's gripping, extremely intense film about the Algiers motel killings during the 1967 Detroit riots, she and regular screenwriter Mark Boal have crafted a meticulously researched version of this notorious incident. Yet a postscript acknowledges the precise chain of events inside the motel was not properly established in a court of law, so certain elements were dramatised. Quite frankly I took that as a given, and the points about racially motivated police brutality are powerfully made regardless of factual veracity.

Prior to the motel sequence - an utterly compelling one hour centrepiece that jabs raw nerves of outrage with ruthless dexterity - the film sketches in the historic background to the riots, firstly in an animated prologue, then in the initial riots themselves. Bigelow's verite style, often mixing news footage and stills with reconstruction, frequently and ironically brought to mind Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. A palpable sense of unease and fear is built amid looting, police clashes and racial tensions, as the film then follows the various characters that will ultimately converge in the motel.

John Boyega turns in a notable performance as damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't security guard Melvin Dismukes, coldly tolerated by the white cops and national guardsmen, and often openly despised by his own community with accusations of being an "Uncle Tom". Even better, Will Poulter is an absolute revelation as racist, paranoid, trigger-happy cop Krauss. His presence here is nothing less than terrifying, and I predict an Oscar nomination for supporting actor.

However, the closest the film has to a main protagonist is Larry Reed (Algee Smith), whose role in Motown group The Dramatics is tied up in the motel incident and the broader tragedy of the riots. His character arc (aided by Smith's superb performance) is particularly poignant, deftly laying out the appalling damage to his life without ever coming off as preachy. Indeed, whilst this is certainly an angry film, Detroit is, above all, a grieving film. Its sobering, relevant, are-we-really-still-having-to-have-these-conversations-in-2017 message is inherent in every frame.

If the film has a flaw, it is that following the Algiers motel incident, the tension relaxes somewhat for a courtroom finale that never quite catches fire the way you feel it ought to. And yet, perhaps that is the point. The legal outcome of the story was deeply unjust, causing one to leave the cinema not on a dramatic high but feeling somewhat let down. All that said Detroit is still a very fine piece of work that stands up well amongst Bigelow's prestigious back catalogue. CR

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