“Detroit” never flinches from its real life horror
Kathryn Bigelow's most recent film is a brutal, unblinking look at police brutality.
November 29, 2020

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. In November we’re celebrating Kathryn Bigelow, the first female winner of a Best Director Academy Award, and her fascinating journey from indie genre films to blockbuster political dramas. Read the rest of our coverage here.


Detroit is a deliberately harrowing movie. There is nothing sugarcoated or tempered about the horrific abuses it puts on display. Instead, it explores the causes, infliction, and perpetuation of those abuses in turn, with only the slightest hints of hope peaking in around the edges.

That’s not to say that Detroit is anything less than artistic in its depiction of these abuses. The film matches the faux-documentary, “in the heart of the action” aesthetic approach on display in director Kathryn Bigelow’s prior efforts like Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker. But that is an artistry all its own. The most impressive technical achievement of Detroit is that, for better or worse, it makes the viewer feel like they’re there, in the thick of such horrid acts, as victim and perpetrator and complicit observer all at once.

That is, understandably, too much for some to bear. The film has an interesting tripartite structure, not wholly dissimilar from that of Zero Dark Thirty, each with its own brutal trials to stomach. Rather than three distinct phases, each with its own goal and tenor, Detroit feels more like a dizzying inhale, an eternity of holding one’s breath, followed by a painful exhalation.

It begins by dotting around the titular American city, as tensions build, riots erupt, and the culmination of years of segregation and abuse touches the lives of figures from all across Detroit. The opening act traces the roots of this conflict, the way its tendrils spread out and impacted so many people and so many facets of their lives, from a hopeful singer to a racist cop to a security guard working two jobs and just trying to get by, until their paths cross in horrific terms.

It’s then that Detroit becomes hard to endure. The major event of the film centers on the real life terror enacted by policeman and other law enforcement authorities against a dozen individuals, all young black men (save for two young white women damned by the cops for associating with them), that involved countless incidents of brutal beatings, psychological abuse, and out-and-out murder. 

Detroit feels more like a dizzying inhale, an eternity of holding one’s breath, followed by a painful exhalation.

The film spares nothing in depicting these events. It gives the viewer no respite from the tragedy, no discretion shots to couch what’s happening more gently or palatably, no cuts away to save the audience from having to stand witness to such transgressions. That is by design, meant to shock the conscience and present the pain and unfathomable cruelty inflicted with no option to turn away or pretend these events were somehow gentler or less horrible than they really were.

But that frankness in depiction is at times, too much. Detroit is not a pleasant film, nor one for the faint of heart. It’s easy to watch that extended middle section, which hardly breaks from a single location or jumps in time, and think of it as the social justice-minded equivalent of Hostel, or recall the South Park kids’ commentary on The Passion of the Christ — “That wasn’t a movie; that was a snuff film.”

And yet, it’s tough to call Detroit indulgent. It may be difficult to watch, but it never feels like it’s reveling in this horror, exploiting it the way a gory Halloween flick might or fetishizing it for other purposes. Instead, the cinéma vérité style of the picture is both non-judgmental, making the camera a detached observer, and yet utterly condemning of what it displays, making the implicit statement that this is how things really are, and you cannot run from them, ignore them, or pretend they didn’t happen.

On the other hand, the film is not merely content to say “this exists.” While straightforward in its dialogue and script overall, it explores complexities beyond the mere fact that there were such terrible violations by policemen against black communities. It explores the individuals who could have helped, but who abdicated their responsibilities, lest they be caught in the same mess. It touches on the intersection of gender, military service, respectability politics, and so many other sides of the “bloody heirloom” (as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it) that are encapsulated by this one grisly event.

At the same time, Detroit isn’t content to make this a generalized evil, with unspecified victims. It dramatizes the impact of the brutality and murder at the Algiers Hotel through three characters, and how each is affected by them. 

The first is Dismukes (John Boyega), the security guard who sidles up to law enforcement in an attempt to slow the bleeding. Boyega gives a reserved but nevertheless powerhouse performance in the film. Speaking few words, he is a man who believes in appeasement, in avoiding the avoidable and lessening the pain of the unavoidable. But he clearly feels the weight of his silence and steadfastness beneath his stoic exterior and sees what such choices have wrought.

The second is Kraus (Will Poulter who, like the film, doesn’t shy away from the monstrousness of his character), the racist policeman who leads the “interrogation.” At times, Kraus feels too evil to be real, and yet he works by cutting the figure of the mundane, lived-in sort of evil, the type of bad actor who justifies his actions to himself and feels so confident in his ability to wriggle out of punishment, that he eventually becomes all too real.

Will Poulter in Detroit (Annapurna Pictures)

And then there’s Larry (Algee Smith), the lead singer of The Dramatics, a Motown-aspiring group of singers. Larry is the lamb led to the slaughter here, a young man who has no part in even the pretextual justifications for the assault. He is an innocent, not just of these supposed crimes, but of the social order and system that permits them. And yet, such innocence cannot stand within such an order, and he becomes a changed man in the course of these grisly events.

How you feel about Detroit will no doubt be influenced by whether it has the power to change you too. If you are, like some in the film, naive or unknowing of the horrid depths of such violations, many of which persist to this day, you may walk out changed as well, having been made witness. If you are, like me — someone who acknowledges these unforgivable trespasses but will never have to experience them — the film is a stark reminder of the horrors that myself and those like will never face outside of a theater and, in that, a call to action.

And if you are someone who instead has to face those threats, those anxieties, and the sharpest edges of our society on a daily basis, then the film can only serve as a reminder of what already cannot be forgotten.

But in any mode, the film has power. It gains that power from the way it personalizes these events, from the broader societal scope it takes along the way, and from its unflinching view of its central horror. How we feel that horror, how we respond to it, says as much about who we are and what we have or haven’t been forced to face before Detroit arrived on our screens, as anything in the film itself.

Detroit Trailer: