The 1967 riots in Detroit, Michigan, are the focus of Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit.
As it did in several American cities in the 1960s, tensions boiled over between African Americans and an abusive police force in Detroit, and it turned into rioting. After a few days of this, the cops, National Guard, and private security guards (including an African American one played by John Boyega) are on edge. Tragedy occurs when a young man (Jason Mitchell) fires a starter pistol from a motel window. Three police officers (led by Will Poulter) mistake it for sniper fire and storm the hotel. Once inside, they find several young black men partying with two young white women. That further enrages the police officers, who torture everyone present in an effort to find the nonexistent sniper.
The Algiers Motel incident takes up the second third of the film, and it plays like a home invasion horror movie where the bad guys are police officers. There isn't a central character for viewers to latch on to the way they could with Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker or Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow’s previous films). But the movie is consistently compelling, and Bigelow has always been a strong director at creating scenes of visceral tension. There’s also a growing sense of dread as viewers know that the police officers will never actually face justice.
In an era where the deaths of unarmed African American men at the hands of the police are an all-too-common sight on the news (often with smartphone videos of the deaths), Detroit is a relevant film. It’s not quite on the level of Bigelow’s best (you can feel Detroit’s 2-hour-and-23-minute running time), but it’s a tense, thoughtful look at a piece of history that feels like it’s in danger of repeating itself for the foreseeable future.