Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit tells a story that needs to be told, one adapted from real-life events that happened 50 years ago but still have a piercing resonance today. In Detroit on the night of July 25, 1967—some 48 hours after rioting broke out on the city, following a police raid on an after-hours club—three black teenagers were killed at the Algiers Motel at the hands of white police officers. During the incident, nine other people, including two white women, were detained and terrorized by those policemen.
Detroit focuses on that story, dramatizing it in harrowing detail. At the time of the riots, and of the Algiers Motel incident, reporters covering the story—Bigelow includes TV news clips from the time—expressed disbelief that such intense, desperate violence could break out on American streets. What’s most horrifying about seeing and hearing those snippets of vintage news reports is that in 2017, that kind of violence and distrust doesn’t seem surprising at all.
But if Detroit—written by Mark Boal, who has also made two other pictures with Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker—is a well-intentioned picture, it’s also a flawed one. This is filmmaking that sets out to make its points but fails, in big ways and small ones, to forge an emotional connection with most of its characters. In a strange way, it’s more fixated on the white cops, Krauss (Will Poulter) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole)—their characters are stand-ins for the real-life cops in the Algiers Motel case, Ronald August and Robert Paille—who figure prominently in the film’s extended, excruciating centerpiece.
In that sequence, the police officers, as well as several National Guardsmen and members of the Michigan State Police, storm the motel in response to what they believe is sniper fire coming from one of the rooms. They forcibly round up the hotel’s inhabitants and guests—among them a Vietnam veteran named Greene (Anthony Mackie), hotel resident Carl (Jason Mitchell), who fired the harmless starter pistol that drew authorities to the scene in the first place, and fresh-faced teenager Fred (Jacob Latimore), who’s visiting the hotel with his buddy, Larry (Algee Smith), an aspiring singer. They then line them up against a wall on the motel’s ground floor, and what follows is an escalating horror show of sadism and murder.
The sequence is brutally effective in the sense that it’s likely to make you ashamed to be an American. (I certainly felt shame.) But effective filmmaking isn’t always the same as good filmmaking. And subjecting your audience to unrelenting grimness, as Bigelow does, isn’t the best way to convey the weight of real-life brutality and injustice. It doesn’t help that Poulter and O’Toole give clumsily shaped performances that distract from the violence at hand rather than heighten it. They come at their characters with a mustache-twirling cartoonishness. If only evil were so easy to identify in real life.
That’s unfortunate, because Detroit also features some fine performances, particularly that of John Boyega as security guard Melvin Dismukes. Dismukes, in real life as in the movie, was a security guard who was present at the Algiers Motel and implicated in the violence, though he was ultimately found not guilty. Boyega, with little more than an anxious glance, conveys the delicate tightrope walk of his situation: As a black man in a uniform, he’s automatically perceived as his brothers’ enemy rather than as a compatriot.
And relative newcomer Smith is superb as Larry Reed, a young singer who, just as the riots erupt, is on the verge of getting his big break as a member of the local Detroit R&B group the Dramatics. In the picture’s most beautifully staged sequence, a concert at a downtown theater has to be stopped just as the group is about to go on. After the crowd has been cleared, Larry takes the stage anyway, singing alone to the empty theater. The sparkles on the lapels of his tuxedo seem heartbreakingly hopeful, though not more so than the velvety, youthful optimism of his voice.
Larry’s story is devastating, and Smith makes you feel it in your gut. But the narrative around him and his fellow Algiers Motel victims is sometimes scrambled and unfocused. Admittedly, Bigelow is treading into complicated, difficult territory here. And in the movie’s opening scenes, she and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd do an effective job of capturing the city streets as a war zone, a shambles of burned-out buildings and smashed store windows.
But in dealing with the riots overall, Bigelow fails to give us a sense of the city’s geography, a sense of what’s happening where, especially after federal troops and National Guardsmen are brought in to help quell the looting and arson. The story sprawls out of her control in places where pinpoint control is needed. And the movie’s wrap-up, where we learn what happened to the police officers charged in the murders of the three victims—their punishment, or lack thereof, won’t come as a surprise—feels hasty and unshaped.
Detroit is the type of movie we need right now. But there’s no shame in wishing that it were a better one.