With the same you-are-there handheld aesthetic that characterised her Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, the opening of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit – following a brief animated prologue that contextualises Motor City’s racial tensions – gives viewers a reconstruction of the event of overzealous police violence that kicked off days of rioting in the eponymous city in 1967. One of the most destructive civil disturbances of its kind in the history of the United States, it saw the Michigan Army National Guard being deployed and President Lyndon B Johnson sending in airborne infantry divisions.
Despite that opening, Detroit is not an exploration of the entire uprising; even the 143-minute runtime it has wouldn’t do that subject justice. Instead, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal focus on one of the more disturbing events that took place among the chaos.
On the third day of the riots, a dozen innocent civilians – ten black men, two white women – were tortured, and a few shot dead, by white cops who suspected one of them of firing sniper shots from the window of the Algiers Motel, in which they were subsequently made prisoners. In truth, there was no sniper: the suspected weapon had been a harmless starter pistol fired by one young man, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), amid a discussion and demonstration of how black people live 24/7 under the threat of violence.
Following a lengthy getting to know the various players who end up in the motel (including the cops, led by a terrifying Will Poulter), Bigelow devotes the middle and longest section of Detroit to the motel raid. Incorporating the cinematic language of home invasion horror, and mostly filmed in extreme close-up (you can almost feel the sweat and drying blood on people’s foreheads), the reconstruction has a viscerally upsetting force…