I've been a fan of Kathryn Bigelow's forever (her second feature, Near Dark, which happens to be my favorite, came out more than 30 years ago). Her Oscar for The Hurt Locker means she will forever be an important part of film history. I missed out on Detroit when it was released, but I rectified that last night, and I have now seen all ten features directed by Bigelow. I believe that is my personal high: most films I've seen by a director that is also all of their movies. (It's not that she's better than Jean Renoir, but I've got a couple of dozen of his movies I haven't yet seen.)
The core of Detroit is a long, excruciatingly tense reconstruction of the Algiers Motel incident, where a group of police and National Guardsmen terrorized a group of young people, mostly black, killing three of them. Bigelow uses a documentary, "you are there" style, showing how frightening the situation was to the victims. The Incident dominates the film ... context is provided, but ultimately, what matters is that we see what happened at the Algiers without flinching. It's a necessary, if uncomfortable, film. And it has obvious relevance today, when police killing of black citizens is as bad as it ever was.
Bigelow's decision to be a fly on the wall means some of the characters' actions are incompletely explained. Perhaps explanation is impossible. John Boyega (Attack the Block) is the one African-American among the invading force, a security guard caught up in events. Boyega does a great job of showing the confusion his character is feeling, but we never really understand his actions, the way we do with the racist cops. The racists are part of the problem, too, in that their characters are largely explained by saying "they're racists".
Some interesting names, many from TV, are in the cast, given varying amounts of things to do. Besides Boyega, there's Will Poulter (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch), Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black), Kaitlyn Dever (Justified), Anthony Mackie (Avengers movies), Gbenga Akinnagbe (The Wire), Chris Coy (The Deuce), and John Krasinski (The Office).
Near Dark remains my favorite Kathryn Bigelow movie, and I'm not sure she's ever made a complete classic. But her last three movies, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Detroit, made at an age (57-66) when a lot of directors are past their prime, are indicative of her quality.
(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)