Review: Detroit is a horribly relevant and tense triumph

John Boyega in Detroit
John Boyega in Detroit

Matt Adcock reviews Detroit (15), starring John Boyega

Films based on real events can make for cinema that educate as well as entertain, that provoke deep feelings and highlight situations that change perceptions and opinions. Detroit tells the tale of a disastrous police raid in that took place in 1967 which resulted in one of the largest race riots in US history. It’s an emotional powder keg of tension and recrimination, expertly handled by director Kathryn ‘The Hurt Locker’ Bigelow.

The story is centred around the Algiers Motel incident, which occurred in Detroit, Michigan on July 25, 1967, during the racially charged 12th Street Riot. It involves the death of three black men and the brutal beatings of nine other people: seven black men and two white women.

The film sets the scene with a quick history of the Great Migration which saw millions of African-Americans move from the South to the Northeast of the US and then moves on to capture the racial resentments that this brought. Mixing archive footage into the drama as the tension is built up and Detroit finds itself a city caught into a whirlwind of hatred, victimization and mistrust. What follows is a kind of ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ in the Algiers Motel where unarmed black teens find themselves under threat from white police and National Guardsmen.

The group caught in a tragic misunderstanding is r'n'b band The Dramatics who arrive in the city to find that their venue has been shut down, when their tour bus is attacked they seek refuge in the Algiers Motel along with two girls they meet – Julie (Hannah ‘Game of Thrones’ Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever -whose virtual persona is the star of the new PS4 Uncharted game). When a shot from a starter pistol is mistaken for a sniper attack, things turn nasty.

Caught up in the events is Melvin Dismukes (John ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Boyega), a security guard who is assigned to protect a grocery store from looters. Being an amiable chap he gets on well with the jumpy Guardsmen but when violence kicks off he finds himself in a desperate and escalating situation.

At points Detroit feels similar in style to this year’s Dunkirk – building nerve shredding tension from a terrible situation that escalates to the point where you’ll be physically moved by the events unfolding on the screen.

Detroit feels horribly relevant and is well worth checking.