Over her last three features – ‘The Hurt Locker’, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and now the electrifying ‘Detroit’ – Kathryn Bigelow has become America’s most accomplished director of war movies. They’re not the glacially styled, ultra-heroic combat epics that make grown men cry (though Bigelow has won her share of awards) but films about the way we fight right now. Hers is a trilogy loaded with confusion, stress and the secret unease that lingers long after the battlefield is empty. ‘Detroit’ is set in the late 1960s, primarily during the racially fraught riots that tore the city apart on a televised stage in the summer of 1967. But to watch Bigelow’s expertly calibrated chaos during the riots’ escalation – nothing short of block-by-block guerilla warfare – is to witness something depressingly familiar to anyone who has seen the videos of today’s police brutality, of violently botched arrests and furious community responses, and worried that it would never get better. (It never did.)
Almost shockingly, ‘Detroit’ cuts away from the riots to a glorious Motown concert happening mere blocks away from the fighting – how could such heavenly harmonies survive the night? (Mark Boal’s well-researched screenplay draws on actual events.) We meet a rising young combo, the Dramatics, waiting offstage for their moment to win the crowd. But they never get their chance, and the gig is cancelled out of nervousness. Dodging street skirmishes, lead singer Larry (Algee Smith) finds himself at the Algiers Motel – first partying, then sweating out the night – with an impulsive cop-baiting provocateur (Jason Mitchell, a live wire), two scared white women from Ohio, a wary black security guard (John Boyega in a performance of Denzel-like dignity) and, terrifyingly, a loose cannon from Detroit’s police force (Will Poulter, burning with rage).
The standoff at the Algiers Motel has entered legend (if not widely known history) as a notorious incident of injustice. Bigelow makes it the centrepiece of ‘Detroit’ and, simply put, in doing so has crafted her most harrowing piece of filmmaking. It consumes more than an hour and scrapes the far edge of a nightmare: the handcuffed suspects emitting naked fear, the officers leaning into self-righteousness with horrible consequences. To the movie’s enormous credit (and displaying an ambition that feels slightly overstuffed), it doesn’t end there but with a criminal trial. But the point of ‘Detroit’ – easily among the most essential films of the year – is the aftermath: the blood was washed away, but the guilt stuck around.