While its true story takes place a half-century ago, Detroit practically feels like it’s been extracted from present-day headlines.

That’s the point of this harrowing history lesson made more impactful by the abundant contemporary resonance in recreating a weeklong series of racially motivated riots in 1967 that spotlighted systemic discrimination, police brutality and the justice system.

The film marks the third collaboration between director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty), and their first that doesn’t concern military conflicts in the Middle East. Rather, this powerful effort hits significantly closer to home, both geographically and emotionally, by depicting on ongoing war that shows no signs of stopping.

The film takes a broad perspective on the violent street riots by black residents against the city’s largely white police force, triggered by ongoing socioeconomic inequality, mutual suspicion and distrust, and other factors bubbling beneath the surface.

It generally follows a handful of characters, including a morally conflicted black security guard (John Boyega) who tries to make peace, an aspiring Motown singer (Algee Smith) and his teenage friend (Jacob Latimore), and a hot-tempered white cop (Will Poulter) with an antiquated view on race relations.

As the city descends into widespread looting and anarchic chaos, with state and federal troops dispatched to assist, the men all converge on a rundown hotel, where the sound of gunfire leads to a sadistic night of interrogation that spirals out of control.

While it’s gritty and evocative look into a specific time and place, the film succeeds in transcending a single setting or instance of civil disobedience. The hand-held camerawork creates an immersive documentary feel that enhances the film’s keen attention to period detail.

Boal’s script is based on real characters and events, but speculative when it comes to some details of the central incident. The film lacks context in spots and flattens out in some of its quieter character-driven moments, yet is bolstered by an even-handed perspective and a strong ensemble cast.

Intense and provocative, it’s a gripping and emotionally draining drama that is, by necessity, difficult to watch at times. Perhaps the subject matter renders it easier to admire than enjoy.

Glimmers of hope aside, the residual feelings of anger and shame after watching Detroit aren’t an indictment against the titular city, but rather an indictment on all of us.


Rated R, 143 minutes.