Rare as it is for a film to contribute anything entirely new to cinema as a whole, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit brings a stunningly original empathetic naturalism into the realm of social-historical drama. Based on accounts of the violent Algiers Motel incident which occurred amongst race riots in Detroit, Michigan, 1967, the film, understandably, makes for highly uncomfortable viewing in a number of places. The feature’s confronting candour creates a colossal tension for audiences, especially when watching on the silver screen, as one cannot easily look away.
Detroit is unostentatious yet finely detailed in sets and costumes, its soundtrack seamlessly integrated and non-invasive, its silences disturbing and their punctuation even more so. Algee Smith gives an incredibly moving performance as gifted soul singer Larry Reed; his moments on screen are unforgettable in the power they generate through intense raw emotion. Smith’s voice is almost angelic in nature, and contributes to a most insidious contrast when set against Detroit’s vicious narrative surroundings. John Boyega is understated and engrossingly controlled as security guard and factory labourer Melvin Dismukes – outstanding, particularly in the feature’s latter half.
Structured in periodic “acts”, Detroit is clear and crisp in its narrative unfolding. Its use of real-time scenes and handheld camera work feel natural, and certainly not exaggerated (as found with so many experiments in “shaky-cam” cinematography). The film’s opening sequence transforms necessary background into something unique and exquisite. Detroit is delicate, and it is punishing. Not a film to be missed and most definitely not a film, nor period, to be forgotten.