by Toby Woollaston

detroitThe link between racism and unlawful police brutality never seems to leave the headlines, and this makes Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, the true story of the murder of three black men in 1967, a relevant topic today.  The fact that Detroit is set fifty years ago only serves to illustrate how little America has moved on with regard to race relations. 

Set to the backdrop of the Detroit race riots, the film begins by explaining that the pointy end of the maligned racist stick is the result of historically deep-seated problems.  Certainly, Detroit and Raoul Peck’s recently released I Am Not Your Negro would make the perfect double bill.

Detroit’s opening sequences paint a striking picture of a city in violent chaos, but its broad scope soon gives way to a more focussed telling of police brutality against a small group of youths. Larry (Algee Smith) is a burgeoning singer on the cusp of a record signing. One night at the Algiers Motel, Larry and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) cross paths with some youths goofing around with a starter pistol.  With riot tensions high, the paranoid and trigger-happy authorities move in to “quell” what they believe is a sniper.

Bigelow’s restless camera jitters and shakes its way around the scenes with a kinetic momentum that perpetuates the mood and tension of a powder keg ready to blow.  It’s an exhausting watch. The black community’s fear of a predominantly white police force is palpable, although the film stops short of being a complete diatribe against white authority—its main antagonist, Krauss (Will Poulter), is portrayed as an unhinged policeman drunk on power rather than being representative of white motivations. Ultimately, it is the judicial system that comes under the film’s moral scrutiny.

Unfortunately Bigelow’s literary muse, Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) has delivered a screenplay that falls short of his usual high standards, as moments of Bigelow-esque brilliance are dulled by overdrawn scenes that become repetitive and tiresome.  Nonetheless, Detroit remains an unnerving illustration of a dark period in American history that deserves to be seen.

Read my full review for the NZ Herald here.