The latest film from the director of Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker follows the 1967 police killing of black teenagers amid a racially charged riot. It could be 2017’s most urgent movie

Kathryn Bigelow sits very straight and considers events last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. “It was an atrocity,” she says. “I don’t know where we go from here.” Does the crisis of American racism scare her? She repeats the question back as if peering at it under glass. “Does it scare me? Does it scare me?”

We are in London, a long way from Charlottesville, and a piano tinkles nearby. Bigelow, who is wearing a black top and jeans, is almost 6ft tall, gracefully angular, still the only woman to win an Oscar as best director, for her Iraq war masterpiece The Hurt Locker. The movies she makes – spotted with raw, precision violence – might suggest a certain kind of personality. In fact, I’m not the first person meeting her to be reminded of a benign professor.

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