“Detroit” is the name of the new Kathryn Bigelow movie, but clearly that title is intended to stand for “America.” The film, which was written by Mark Boal, her collaborator on “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” begins on July 23, 1967, with an after-hours police raid on an unlicensed Detroit bar in a black neighborhood that rapidly escalates into a civilian riot that brings out the mostly white city and state police and the National Guard. The four-day riot ultimately claimed 43 lives, with more than 1,100 injured and more than 7,000 arrests.
Bigelow stays with the looting, demonstrations, and violence in the streets for a while, filming in a semidocumentary style and interspersing actual newsreel footage, before focusing on a notorious incident that occurred on the third night of the rioting when, ultimately, three unarmed black teenagers were killed.
Larry Reed (Algee Smith), the lead singer of up-and-coming doo-wop group The Dramatics, is devastated when the group’s stage appearance in a cavernous downtown theater is abruptly canceled because of riot fears. In the film’s best and quietest moment, Larry refuses at first to leave; he walks onstage and croons softly to an empty theater.
He and his cohort, Fred (Jacob Latimore), who consoles his friend and tells him that “there will be a next time,” make their way to the Algiers Motel, a nearby seedy hangout where they mix it up with the other denizens, including two teenage white girls visiting from Ohio, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), and Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), a volatile jokester. Carl shoots a starter pistol through an open window, unleashing a police raid spearheaded by Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), the sadistic, racist cop in charge. (The character is given a fictitious name and is based on multiple police officers involved in the incident.)
It is at this point, after Carl is inadvertently shot dead by the police and the rest of the motel’s inhabitants are lined up against the wall, that Bigelow tightens the screws and doesn’t let up until a slow-fade courtroom drama denouement. The action she depicts, although by most eyewitness accounts less appalling than what really happened, is horrific enough. Krauss indulges in his specialty, the “death game,” in which, among others, Larry and Fred, the two girls, and Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie), a recently discharged Vietnam veteran, are made to believe they will be executed one by one unless they identify the “sniper” and hand over his gun.
From a purely melodramatic standpoint, these extended sequences, which seem to go on forever, are certainly galvanizing. But to what end? Once they are lined up and repeatedly brutalized, the victims at the Algiers Motel, with the exception of Robert, cease to be much more than sacrificial sufferers. The contours of their personalities, which up until this point have been carefully limned, are effaced. This may be the point that racist violence reduces its victims to an atrocious nothingness. But the unrelenting atrocity, so lacking in dramatic or emotional modulation, becomes numbing.
The filmmakers do the same thing with Krauss, who is portrayed throughout as a baby-faced psychotic who uses the riots as an excuse to vent his violence. I’m not arguing that Bigelow should have made him “sympathetic.” On the contrary, allowing him some human contours would have made him seem more abhorrent, because his depredations could be seen as the act of a human being and not a B-movie monster. (Two other white police officers portrayed in the film, and a powerless black security guard, well-played by John Boyega, were all eventually found not guilty.)
I had problems with “Zero Dark Thirty” because the tortures it depicted deliberately lacked a political context and, as a result, justified, if only implicitly, the effective usage of torture. You certainly couldn’t accuse “Detroit” of endorsing torture. If anything, Bigelow pounds home its ghoulish ineffectiveness. She and Boal are after different game here: They want to draw a thick red line between what happened in Detroit and the continuing racial unrest in American cities. They want us to know that black lives do matter.
In “Detroit,” it is too easy for us to feel that, but for a few bad law enforcement apples, things would not have escalated so sickeningly. If the film had focused on more than the Algiers Motel incident, if, as it starts out to do, it had attempted to convey a comprehensive and incendiary portrait of a city in crisis, it would have rendered far more justice to those times – and our own. Grade: B- (Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language.)