Detroit is a film experience so overwhelming and intense that it's hard to know what to say about it, or where to begin at least. We can start with the bare facts: this is the first feature from Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow since the similarly intense Zero Dark Thirty from 2012, the film is a retelling of the still hazy events that occurred at Detroit's Algiers Motel in 1967 amidst a climate of explosive racial tension.
With its freewheeling, quasi-documentary style - typical of Bigelow but here reaching rare cinematic heights - Detroit places the audience directly in the action. An extended prologue immediately begins the unrest, with the shutting down of an illegal after hours club quickly leading to a nigh-apocalyptic spate of violence in Detroit's black neighbourhoods, worsened by police hostility. It's immediately apparent why this film was made now; The events in Detroit in the late 60s are legendary, but a repeat often feels only moments away in the U.S. social and political climate.
The ensemble cast is headed up by John Boyega, as Melvin Dismukes, a security guard and auto factory worker who is unwittingly dragged into the violence at the Algiers. With the real-life figure of Melvin, the film permeates a dangerous black-and-white dichotomy and finds deeper layers of meaning throughout its tense, urgent, nail-biting second act that takes place entirely at the Algiers. Will Poulter, Jack Reynor and Ben O'Toole play a trio of police officers largely responsible for the tragic events at the hotel, where a pair of young white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) and a pair of bright eyed young soul singers (Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore) play an important role in the turbulent night.
At first, Detroit seems a little too interested in bludgeoning the audience with violence and misery. Bigelow's films aim for unmatched reality, but without the right kind of rhetorical thrust, the events portrayed in Detroit run the risk of playing into the kind of narratives that seek to portray African-American people as innately violent. Thankfully, the second act of the film - an absolutely masterful piece of cinema that is perhaps Bigelow's greatest achievement - creates the narrative that is so sorely needed and presents three-dimensional characters played spectacularly and a nuanced portrayal of race relations in America.
It was never determined precisely what happened at the Algiers that night, and Detroit admits that it is based on theories and conjecture, but it never feels contrived or forced. Its final act is quiet and slow - almost frustratingly so - just like all of us have seen when one of these tragedies occurs. In Bigelow's cinema, justice isn't the ultimate destiny, but an elusive and arguably unattainable ideal. Fifty years on, things are still the same.
Detroit opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday November 9th.