Director Kathryn Bigelow starts Detroit with a history lesson, told through artwork and animation, of how a century of history — the end of slavery, the industrialization of the nation, a vast migration of freed slaves and their descendants to the cities looking for work, followed by the exit of whites to the suburbs and the gradual end of the wartime economy — led to the environment that could spark the riots that wracked the city of Detroit in 1967. Poor economic conditions, breakdowns in social services, lack of work, a rise in crime and an overwhelming if unspoken urge on the part of some in authority to enforce “the rule of law,” particularly when it came to people of color, were the deadly ingredients in the volatile explosion of repressed rage, frustration and despair that turned the Motor City into a militarized zone for five long days.
Bigelow’s brief recap of historical events is important because it places the riots in context; despite what some demagogues try to tell us, these things don’t just happen in a vacuum or burst out of nowhere. In the opening scene of Detroit, Bigelow recreates the incident — the shutting down of an illegal after-hours club — that kicks off the rioting. Make no mistake: the club should not be there and the police are within their rights to shut it down. It’s how they go about it — treating the people inside like garbage and creating an atmosphere of fear and violence — that leads to the local community pushing back with increasing and finally destructive anger.
Detroit is not a “cop-bashing” movie, although there are individual police officers in the film who are so malevolent that they should not be allowed near other human beings, let alone a gun and a badge. Chief among them is Krauss, played with a sense of shockingly banal evil by Will Poulter (The Revenant), who we meet early on when he shoots a looter in the back. A decent Internal Affairs detective later tells Krauss that he’s recommending murder charges against him, but with the rioting still at its peak, Krauss is released right back into active duty, his idea of how to administer the law warped beyond repair by his own prejudice and sense of entitlement.
Krauss is one of several characters we meet in the first act of Detroit — where we see how everyday life is upended by the unrest — whose lives will intersect a short time later. Another is Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a hard-working and streetwise security guard who is navigating the tricky line between his own people and both the cops and military troops patrolling Detroit in the wake of the riots. And then there’s Larry Reed (Algee Smith), lead singer of a local R&B combo called the Dramatics, whose hopes for a big break are crushed when the rioting leads to the cancellation of a show at which Reed and his outfit were going to showcase for a record label. With nothing else to do, Larry and his cousin Fred (Jacob Latimore) head to the rather seedy Algiers Hotel to hang out.
There they meet two white girls, Karen and Julie Ann (Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray), who are up for a party and find one in an upstairs room where some local guys are also holing up. One of then, Carl (Jason Mitchell), delivers a powerful and unsettling lesson on what it feels like to be a black person at the mercy of white authorities — but then does the dumbest thing (there’s no other way to say it) he could possibly do: he fires a toy gun out the window at the police and National Guard troops stationed a few blocks away.
Although no bullets actually fly from Carl’s toy, the response is immediate: the hotel is surrounded and invaded, and the overreach we saw in the earlier scene at the club soon looks like a schoolyard tussle. The long middle section of Detroit, in which Krauss and two other cops line up, interrogate, terrorize and torture everyone in the hotel — including the two white girls and a black Vietnam veteran (Anthony Mackie) whose own service means absolutely nothing to the blinded-by-hatred Krauss — is brutal, relentless and at times almost impossible to watch. And yet you can’t look away, because of the intensity of the events that Bigelow is recreating and because of the all-too-clear connection to events in places like Ferguson, Baltimore and New York City that are still happening today.
By the time the night at the Algiers is over, three people are dead, killed in cold blood, and many others are irrevocably scarred by the experience. The final stretch of the film portrays the aftermath — and if you think that there may be some kind of catharsis, you’re wrong. There are no heroes or villains in the traditional sense in the movie: just flawed human beings who respond to the situation around them according to their temperament and instincts, with some failing miserably and others attaining a kind of grace. But no one is left unchanged.
Detroit, like Bigelow’s 2009 masterpiece The Hurt Locker, is hard viewing. The director — working again with her regular screenwriting partner Mark Boal — knows how to inflict pain with precision, while the documentary-like immediacy of her own filmmaking style combines with the use of actual footage from the era to immerse the viewer in the incidents she’s portraying with unflinching realism. The movie does occasionally feel like it’s all on one note, and visually it does not match up to either The Hurt Locker or her last film, Zero Dark Thirty. The structure of the first half seems somewhat awkward. But even with those flaws, the raw power of the narrative shines through and the cast — especially Poulter, Smith, Boyega and Mackie – all excel even with characters that need a bit of fleshing out.
Detroit is a must-see film not only because it recreates an era and a series of incidents that could easily be forgotten in today’s culture of short-term attention, but because the conditions that led to the horrors portrayed are still with us in so many ways. Things may have improved to the point where a night like that at the Algiers perhaps couldn’t happen now, but there’s still no reason for an Eric Garner to be dead on a Staten Island sidewalk for selling cigarettes. The ultimate lesson of Detroit could be that history, if we don’t check ourselves, is ready to repeat at the slightest provocation, real or otherwise.
Detroit opens in limited release on Friday (July 28) and expands on November 4.