In 'Detroit,' atrocity becomes numbing

Kathryn Bigelow's film begins in 1967, with an after-hours police raid on an unlicensed Detroit bar in a black neighborhood that rapidly escalates into a civilian riot. The four-day riot ultimately claimed 43 lives, with more than 1,100 injured and more than 7,000 arrests.

Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures/AP
Anthony Mackie stars in 'Detroit.'

“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.)

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to In 'Detroit,' atrocity becomes numbing
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today