In the summer of 1967, one of the largest riots in the history of the US erupted in Detroit, Michigan. The event that sparked it was relatively small-scale – the raiding of an unlicensed club frequented by African-Americans – but the kindling was centuries of oppression by arrogant white forces. The anger hit breaking point and over five days the city burned; 43 were killed and many hundreds were injured. Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker, depicts those days in one of the most gripping films of the year so far.
Few directors can pace a film like Bigelow, who keeps the start of Detroit almost languid, watching her ensemble as they go about their evening even as the riots are gaining speed. A young singer and his friend wait for their chance to become stars in a talent show. Two women flirt their way around a motel. A group of friends joke about teasing the cops who’ve overtaken their city. Bigelow ratchets this up with expert timing, brilliantly showing how insignificant events can snowball. The firing of a harmless cap gun leads to an astonishing hour of cinema.
The centre of the film is a clash between three police officers, led by Krauss (Will Poulter), whose baby face masks a monster, and a group of young people, mostly black, who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The officers want to assert their authority and find the person who ‘shot’ at them. Their captives just want to get out alive. Not all of them will. It’s an agonising sequence, weak men doing horrible things to bellow their strength. It’s frequently very hard to watch but impossible to turn away from.
There are a few times when the dialogue is a bit tin-eared, particularly an unnecessary ‘not all white people’ moment when one man escapes, and later scenes can’t help but lose the iron grip of the standoff. Those are small quibbles. This is an urgent, maddening, superbly made film and its relevance to what is happening right now in America could not be clearer.