Amid the erupting 1967 Detroit riots, John Boyega plays a security guard drawn in to a grotesque showdown with racist cops at the Algiers Motel
A pulse of heat and fear rises from Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit: a throb of desperate rage at black lives not mattering. It begins with a brief, deadpan animated history of African Americans’ internal emigration in the 20th-century United States and then comes to the Detroit riots of 1967, interweaving fictional scenes with news footage. The movie is dynamically shot by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd; like Bigelow’s previous pictures Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, it is written by Mark Boal and like those movies it has a painfully fraught attitude to men in uniform.
The action runs from a heavy-handed police crackdown on an unlicensed drinking club that triggered the disorder to an incident the movie regards as the main event, which incarnates all the violence, racism and bad faith: the “Algiers Motel incident” in which three white police officers were accused, along with one black security guard, of murdering three black civilians and savagely beating many more, including two white women. Unlike the security guard, the three white cops signed confessions which were ruled inadmissible in court and all four were acquitted. Bigelow and Boal plausibly surmise that the security guard was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, the victim of a stitch-up and further mired in well-meaning attempts at exemplary respectability which earned him cynical contempt from the white authorities and laid him open to charges of Uncle Tom-ism from the black community.