As Detroit opens, we’re shown an interesting but brief animation of the history of the movement of black people in the USA, from the southern states, to the northern regions, the subsequent discrimination, leading up to the 60’s civil rights clashes, which is where the film leads off. The first act feels more like a documentary as it’s interlaced with news footage and voice overs, whilst the simmering tensions build and escalate. We then follow the lives of those caught up in an isolated incident at a motel, which makes up a significant portion of the film, and the following, inevitable consequences.
Detroit is a difficult film to watch, and although there’s been countless films with similar situations prior to this, it doesn’t make it any less harrowing. As the characters and story are slowly unraveled (don’t expect things to move at a pace, it takes its time setting everything up, like a pot gradually starting to boil over) after a barrage of different incidents from the riots, the film settles at the Algiers Motel, where a prank attracts the attentions of racist police officers, who abuse their position of authority without a second thought, putting inncoent civilians through a traumatic ordeal, that was completely unnecessary, just because of who they are.
Will Poulter leads the group of officers, with a cold malice, not seeming to care about the welfare of anyone in his custody. It’s an intense performance from Poulter, who with every film gets better and better, and despite being the antagonist of the peice, it’s one of the films stand out appearances. Another great turn comes from John Boyega’s security guard, acting as a sort of middle man between the authorities and the civilians caught up in the situation, trying to keep a cool head on things and trying to keep the situation from escalating. You can see the weight of the world on his shoulders as he struggles to try and keep things calm, and internally questioning whether he’s doing the right thing or not. Relatively unkown actor, Algee Smith is astonishing as the singer trying to break in to Motown, with his soul group The Dramatics. The more he tries to avoid the trouble, the further he seems to get drawn in, coming to a head in the motel. His is probably the most affecting role, as he is almost about to make something of himself before the riots put paid to that more than once.
The direction is excellent, with a lot of long, lingering and uncomfortable scenes that really hit home just how bad, not just the incident at the motel was, but the riots overall. Despite the script being made up of the accounts from all those involved, nothing here is glamorised, and at times it is very uncomfortable to watch. It’s surprising that the film is being released in the summer and not awards season, as this has Oscar written all over it. It’s shocking, powerful and unfortunately, still relevant today.