Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, “Detroit” is a powerful, intense and moving film that can also be maddening to watch.
“Detroit” is based on the account of Detroit’s 1967 race riots and the trial that followed one tragic altercation between city police and local black citizens.
The film opens with a quick explanation of the mass migration of black Americans from the South to the industrialized North in the first half of the 20th century, and the racial tension that followed the transition of many white Americans out of industrial cities to nearby suburbs.
The action begins with the July 1967 police raid on an illegal club that initially triggered the multiday riot, spilling through the city with fires, looting and an intense atmosphere of chaos that Bigelow captures with grainy, handheld camerawork and quick editing. For a time, Bigelow, whose previous work includes “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” lingers on the growing riots, using a kinetic style to keep audiences locked on the action as we meet the principal characters whose lives are about to intersect with tragic results.
Officers Krauss (Will Poulter), Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole) are a trio of Detroit policemen trying to make sense of the riots as they patrol the city. Krauss is their de facto leader, and in a foreshadowing foot chase, he mortally wounds a fleeing suspect.
Dismukes (John Boyega) is employed as both a factory worker and a nighttime security guard, trying to keep the peace as he is caught between the agitated police and his neighborhood uprising.
Larry (Algee Smith) is the lead vocalist of an up-and-coming soul group called the Dramatics, with aspirations to join Detroit’s homegrown Motown label. But when a key performance is canceled because of the rioting, he and his best friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) decide to hole up in a nearby motel called the Algiers.
When a hot-headed motel guest (Jason Mitchell) decides to fire off a starting pistol in the direction of the National Guard, a swarm of uniformed figures — including Dismukes and the three Detroit policemen — descend on Larry and Fred and the other Algiers guests, leading to an intense standoff and brutal interrogation sequence that forms the heart of the film.
The sequence, which takes up about half of “Detroit’s” 143-minute running time, is emotionally exhausting, and reflects the cause-and-effect chaos of the riots in general. Tick by tick, a bad situation gets progressively worse as the policemen get more determined to beat information out of their detainees by any means necessary, while no one confesses the misunderstanding that created the mess in the first place.
The sequence is so exhausting that audiences may be surprised to see the story continue after the night is finally over, but the aftermath of the encounter underscores “Detroit’s” primary message.
The closing credits acknowledge that the film’s narrative is reconstructed from the accounts of the participants who are still around today, and admits that “Detroit” contains an element of dramatic interpretation. But even if the beat-by-beat events must be taken with a grain of salt, “Detroit” is still a visceral and moving portrait of the riots. Bigelow has put together an unflinching narrative that is frustrating to watch as characters mix poor judgment with personal bias to create an almost circular, self-sustaining brew of chaos and hatred.
“Detroit” doesn’t go out of its way to point an explicit finger at today’s issues involving police brutality, but it’s difficult to watch Bigelow’s film without considering them, or reflecting on the modern state of the Motor City today.
“Detroit” is rated R for strong violence and pervasive language; running time: 143 minutes.