Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t pull many punches.
In “Detroit,” the Oscar-winning filmmaker explores a deadly 50-year-old incident from America’s racial past, an incident so distressing that in comparison it makes her “Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” seem like lighthearted matinee fodder.
That the film is powerful is beyond dispute. It’s so powerful, so excruciating that one must question whether audiences are willing to take it on.
Bigelow’s subject is the notorious Algiers Motel incident. In July 1967, during rioting (some have called it a rebellion) in Detroit’s black neighborhoods, three young men were killed — murdered by most accounts — when confronted by police at the aforesaid motel.
Employing a docudrama approach of the sort pioneered by Paul Greengrass (“Bloody Sunday,” “United 93”), “Detroit” tells its tale without much explanation. After an animated opening sequence exploring the sources of America’s racial crisis in the late 1960s, the film throws us into the action.
It begins when Detroit police raid an illegal after-hours club, and a crowd gathers. Bricks are thrown. Within hours a full-fledged uprising/riot is underway. The screenplay by Mark Boal (“Zero Dark Thirty”) introduces a half dozen characters on both sides of the conflict.
When their performance at a big soul revue is canceled because of the rioting, Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), members of the singing group the Dramatics (the group eventually would be signed by Motown Records), attempt to get home. They decide to hole up where a score of others have taken shelter, in the Algiers’ annex, a once-impressive house now divided into rental rooms.
On the other side of the equation is a white cop, Krauss (Will Poulter), who claims to understand the plight of the urban underclass but who is clearly trigger-happy, weary from days of dealing with arson and looting. Earlier that day he had shot and killed a fleeing looter.
An Algiers tenant (Jason Mitchell) taunts approaching police and National Guard troops by firing a harmless starter pistol, unleashing a series of horrific events. Detroit cops, state police officers and guardsmen storm into the house, rounding up the tenants. Employing psychological terror and beatings, Krauss and company demand to know the whereabouts of the “sniper.”
Larry and Fred know nothing but endure hours of brutal “interrogation.” The cops are particularly incensed by the presence of two white girls (Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever) among all these young black men. A recently discharged soldier (Anthony Mackie) finds himself in more danger here at home than he ever experienced in Vietnam.
Stuck in the middle is an African-American security guard (John Boyega of “Star Wars”), who bravely inserts himself in the mayhem, hoping his uniform and careful demeanor can calm the rampaging cops.
Bigelow’s minute-by-minute re-creation of this long night (based on the recollections of participants) is at times nearly unbearable for its ghastly realism. Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography eschews anything like a pretty picture; the handheld camera rubs our noses in sweat, blood and spittle. It’s overwhelming.
Unfortunately, the film’s disdain for fundamental exposition becomes a handicap in the latter stages, when Krauss and two of his white colleagues go on trial for murder, along with the black security guard who apparently was only trying to defuse the situation. The details of these trials are confusing, though the outcomes are predictable.
“Detroit” is a crushingly visceral experience, one filled with indignation not only for what went on in 1967 but for today’s troubling displays of shoot-first law enforcement. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language.