Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit pushes its atmosphere like an invading force. Through sheer will and punishing fury, it leaves a charred, empty sense of helplessness, and there’s nothing that can be done to salve the burn.
Indeed, audiences who watch Bigelow’s dramatization of the Algiers Motel tragedy will feel the wrath of her filmmaking. An uncomfortable, unflinching account of how a group of African American males and two white women were unjustly targeted and harassed (and in three instances, murdered) by racist Detroit police officers – Detroit is relentless.
Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have delivered a film that is not easy to swallow – nor should it be. Films like this aren’t meant to get us popping popcorn and slurping sodas; they’re meant to shock, sicken and – hopefully – inspire change. That being said, Detroit is overstuffed and tries to tell too large a story. Like a great investigative piece of journalism that hasn’t yet reached the desk of an editor, the film accomplishes a lot of good, tells a story that needs to be told, but really could’ve used a good revision or two.
The first and third acts notwithstanding, the central set piece, the assault at the Algiers, is a masterwork of tension, despair and conflict. Bigelow’s finest moment as a filmmaker might be this roughly-90-minute sequence of events, in which the unsuspecting patrons of the Algiers end up at the wrong end of escalating racial tensions between Detroit’s black community and its police force.
Racism is an ugly monster. It fuels some of our worst actions as humans and causes us to abandon our best selves in exchange for warped ideas. In Detroit, racism is rooted in assumptions and hegemonic conclusions. This film is not about backwoods bumpkins with shotguns and pea-brains. These are normal people with horrible views. People with families, nice houses, groups of friends they socialize on the weekend with and sullen disdain for an entire population of people they don’t even know outside of headlines, glances on the street and brief interactions.
As the 1967 Detroit Riots rage on over a brutal five-day stretch, sparked by the Detroit black community’s frustration with its treatment by the police, windows break, buildings burn, voices shout for equality, guns fire and arrests are made. A group of Motown singers named the Dramatics have their concert upended when the riots begin to flow down to their studio. Two of its members – the front-man Larry Reed (a revelatory Algee Smith) and his pal Fred Temple (a cutting Jacob Lattimore) try to find their way home through the mess, deciding to wait it out at the Algiers Motel for the night.
At the same time a trio of police officers, led by Will Poulter’s Phillip Krauss, are circling the area, looking to “keep the peace.” They lament amongst themselves about how they cannot make sense of why the black community is burning down its own buildings – what a shame it is. Krauss later shoots a black looter in the back as he runs away after stealing groceries. The looter dies a slow, pointless death under a vehicle. Krauss is largely unaffected.
Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega, with the charisma and command of a young Denzel Washington) is the third major player in this tragedy, a black security officer just trying to do his job. He offers a group of white National Guard members coffee on the night of the incident. They’re pleasantly surprised, but still jibe at him like he’s not their equal. Dismukes takes the “bitten lip” approach to his unfortunate place in society – be polite, be respectful, let it all simmer.
Everything blows up when Larry and Fred run into a group of young black men (Jason Mitchell, always great, in a small role as one of the main faces in the bunch) as they laugh, drink and smoke through the turmoil outside. Mitchell’s Carl fires a relay gun out towards the soldiers in the street as a prank. The evening takes a sharp turn after the fired shots. Police, and National Guard members surround the hotel, doors are busted, and the Hellish disarray begins.
Two white girls who were at the party (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever), an unsuspecting Vietnam veteran (Anthony Mackie), Larry and Fred, and a handful of Carl’s pals are lined up, barked at, called disgusting names and beaten and roughed up by the cops. Not everybody survives.
Bigelow and Boal’s crafts shine the brightest here – their refusal to cut away from the ensuing interrogation/intimidation scenes is laudable. The scenes in which Krauss and his men try to pry an answer as to who fired the shots are disgusting to watch, but they writhe with righteous anger. That’s effective filmmaking, though you’ll desperately wish that these events were nothing more than fiction. While their exact historical accuracy is up for debate, Bigelow and Boal capture the morose spirit of the night. Three innocent men were murdered, and more were roughed up and dehumanized. It may not be to the letter, but the aura is on point.
The Algiers sequence takes us right into the nightmare. It’s a display of the dueling elements of the human condition. Much like in Christopher Nolan’s superb Dunkirk, this is a tale of survival, with the Algiers patrons simply trying to live through the night. Dismukes arrives on scene, trying to calm everyone down, his presence keeping Krauss and his men from getting too aggressive. But, when Dismukes is blocked from the hotel, Krauss is left to manage things in his own way.
Poulter is known for his youthful demeanor, but here he uses his appearance contrarily, taking the Krauss character in dark directions. Every raised eyebrow, every devious look reveals the rotten mind of this cop. He’s “just doing his job,” but there’s a part of him that enjoys it, finds catharsis in it, takes it as a call to justice. Poulter’s delivery is over-the-top at some moments and unsettlingly subtle in others. He gives us an effusive, unforgettable villain. It’s one of the standout performances of the year.
After the Algiers incident – a scene as immaculately paced, written, acted and felt as anything on a film screen this year – the film slows down, replacing its fury and artistic audacity with a slower, more contemplative look at events after the onslaught. Here, Bigelow and Boal begin to lose some traction, even if these scenes do provide an important contribution. Watching Reed grapple with his survival after his friend’s murder is disjointed and difficult, but so is a life living with such a burden.
The cops, and Dismukes, who the film suggests was dragged in to the legal case for no reason (but who was actually accused of assault by surviving patrons), all get off scot-free. Once he’s allowed to go free, Dismukes throws up outside of the courthouse. Indeed, Detroit is a jarring ride in a car with no brakes that will leave you rattled and in a haze once it’s over.
Detroit is a testament to the shames of the past, and offers a firm warning not to repeat them. Not all trips to the movies can be enjoyable. Sometimes, we need to be gripped by the neck, shown Hell on Earth, and pleaded with to make sure these horrors don’t happen again.