After two masterpieces set in the Middle East, Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow returns to the United States for a third. This is a harrowing, shameful, illuminating piece of American history. As with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit was written by Mark Boal, largely based on real-life testimonials but also with some fictional fill-ins. Yet it's Bigelow who makes it work, both as drama and as art. Rising through the ranks with B-level genre films (like Point Break), she, more than any other living director, understands how violence is both alluring and repellent. And she's able to show both at once, in shades of gray. In this film, violent threats and showmanship are as important as actual acts.
Detroit starts without fanfare at the "blind pig" raid and proceeds chronologically, inexorably, through the events of 1967. Bigelow effortlessly establishes a sense of time and place, as well as a sense of the scale of the event as a whole, which is never an easy feat. But unlike many of her male cohorts, Bigelow doesn't come at the story through white male eyes; she brilliantly illustrates the utter frustration of racism, even more than its rage. Meanwhile, the characters find depth and poignancy; Anthony Mackie is powerful in just a few scenes, while Star Wars star Boyega serves as a kind of angelic presence, hovering near the events and yearning for peace. When the final results come down, any human being with a heart and soul will be angered by injustice -- and, even so, driven to kindness.