Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s bold, brutal, blood-drenched drama about the atrocious events that unfolded at the Algiers Motel during the city’s deadly race riots in July 1967, plays out like the most frightening kind of home-invasion horror film. That’s because the events depicted are real and, as staged by Bigelow, feel like they are occurring in the present right before our eyes rather than 50 years ago. This isn’t a feel-good docudrama with an uplifting, healing message: It’s intended to provoke outrage and remind viewers of more recent protests regarding police treatment of African-Americans, and on that level it’s an unqualified success.
Detroit opens with the notorious 12th Street Riot—a five-day revolt that resulted in 43 deaths and more than a thousand injuries—which started when police raided a “blind pig” (an unlicensed after-hours nightclub) and threatened the black patrons who were there to honor a returning Vietnam veteran. As the mostly white cops shove people into vans and haul them off to jail, a defiant crowd gathers outside, and it isn’t long before violence erupts. Rocks are hurled through store windows. Looting becomes rampant. Buildings are set ablaze. Soon, the National Guard are called in to help restore order.
Downtown, Martha and the Vandellas sing “Nowhere to Run” at the Fox Theater to an appreciative crowd, while a promising new group called the Dramatics anxiously wait in the wings for what they hope will be their big break. Unfortunately, just as they are about to take the stage, the concert is abruptly cancelled by law enforcement and everyone is ordered out of the theater. The members of the Dramatics split up, and lead singer Larry Reed (a heartbreaking Algee Smith) and friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) get a room in an annex adjoining the Algiers Motel, a black-owned establishment routinely raided for prostitution, so they can avoid the street violence. Stupidly, a 17-year-old black kid (Jason Mitchell) shoots a starter pistol from a window, which leads a nearby National Guard unit to believe there’s a sniper in the building. They return fire, and a local police unit swarm in to head up the probe and locate the shooter.
What follows is one of the most unsettling, traumatic, and tragic scenes to be found in any movie this century. Three white, malevolent cops—led by a baby-faced officer named Krauss (Will Poulter), who’s already under investigation for gunning down a black looter—line everyone in the annex up against a wall and demand they turn the shooter and the weapon over to them. They are further incensed when they discover two white girls there, assuming they’re prostitutes who are turning tricks with black men. This sequence, which includes savage beatings, taunting racial slurs, death threats, a demented murder game in which the cops pretend to kill suspects who won’t talk, and much, much worse, goes on for about 40 excruciating minutes and is the centerpiece of Bigelow’s picture. It’s a bravura piece of filmmaking, intensely and expertly staged, and played out in real time. All of the actors involved in this harrowing scene are excellent, including John Boyega as a good-natured security guard who tries to quell the violence, but Poulter is the standout. His riveting performance is so convincingly sadistic that theatergoers will likely forget they’re watching a movie.
Mark Boal, who also penned Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, wrote the blistering script based on personal interviews with some of the eyewitnesses at the Algiers that fateful night. Although set a half-century ago, Detroit feels extremely contemporary: The filmmakers clearly want audiences to think of events in Ferguson (Michael Brown), Baltimore (Freddie Gray), New York (Eric Garner), and Saint Paul (Philando Castile) when they see Detroit—and they undoubtedly will, especially during the movie’s concluding courtroom scenes in which the victims are denied justice.
Whatever one thinks of Detroit—a brave examination of a long-forgotten injustice or a lurid portrayal of an ugly incident best left in the past—it’s guaranteed to stir strong emotions and is a powerful cinematic experience not easily shaken.