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Casting an eye over a dark period in modern American history, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is an all too pertinent affair, studying the conflict between the black and white communities in the States, which, if you turn on the news anytime soon, you’ll notice is still depressingly relevant. It’s partly this notion which gives this compelling, challenging drama such profundity, as we watch over a tragic set of events that feel as though they could have taken place today.

Set in the summer of 1967, tensions between African Americans and the law enforcement are high, leading to a curfew on the streets of the aforementioned Michigan city. Looters take to the streets an the police reach for their batons, culminating in uncompromising riots, leaving many dead. One night the conflict made its way to the Algiers Motel, where Carl (Jason Mitchell) was murdered by the police, having shot a toy gun out of the window.

The police, consisting of Krauss (Will Poulter), Demends (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole) are taking matters in their own hands, ensuring that all of those staying in the establishment, near where the incident took place, line up against wall. Amongst them is musician Larry (Algee Smith), Fred (Jacob Latimore) and former soldier Greene (Anthony Mackie), as well as white women Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). With Kruass leading the unorthodox, violent interrogation, and despite having black security guard Dismukes (John Boyega), things turn nasty, as the police show little remorse, resulting in three dead, black bodies.

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Bigelow has crafted this narrative in an intelligent fashion, as we meet all of the characters who eventually find themselves against the wall of the Motel earlier on, until their stories all collide in the latter half of the movie. There’s a constant foreboding sense as we anticipate something awful happening, and yet when it arrives it still feels like a surprise, which is important as the viewer is placed in the same shoes of the victims, who couldn’t have foreseen what would occur either. The performances, across the board, are simply magnificent, with Boyega so understated and subtle in his complex performance, while Poulter is anything but – and yet they’re both equal in how nuanced and powerful their performances are, doing Brits proud in this otherwise American production.

There have been some criticisms aimed at the almost pornographic use of violence in this endeavour, with a harrowing final act that is brutal in its execution, and so difficult to sit through. What transpires is a film that will leave you feeling empty, cold and incredibly angry – but don’t let that put you off, for Detroit makes for essential viewing.

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About Stefan Pape

Stefan Pape is a film critic and interviewer who spends most of his time in dark rooms, sipping on filter coffee and becoming perilously embroiled in the lives of others. He adores the work of Billy Wilder and Woody Allen, and won’t have a bad word said against Paul Giamatti.

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