The story behind “Detroit” is still as relevant today as it was in the late ’60s. To this day, African-Americans suffer from repulsive police brutality and crippling institutional racism. Kathryn Bigelow’s (“Zero Dark Thirty”) retelling of the Algiers Motel incident during the 1967 Detroit Riot is a graphic, brutally honest recount of the menacing mistreatment of Blacks at the hands of white police officers during one of the bleakest moments of the 20th Century.
“Detroit” introduces the beginning of the Riot on July 23rd, 1967 following a police raid on a club welcoming home Black veterans from Vietnam. Other historical moments are documented, like Rep. John Conyers’s plea to stop the violence, along with Gov. George Romney’s deployment of the National Guard. Instantly, we are thrown into the mayhem and introduced to the characters who would later be involved in the Algiers incident. The madness unfolds rapidly, and throughout the first two-thirds of the movie, there isn’t a moment to catch your breath while watching the painful police brutality and destruction of the city.
The story is told in three acts, the first serving as an introduction to the characters and how they ended up in the Algiers Motel. Act two focuses on the incident itself, while the third shows the resulting court cases. Although each act is connected, they all feel like their own independent movie, differing in both pace and tension. Mark Boal (“Zero Dark Thirty”), journalist and frequent collaborator with Bigelow, packs a lot of intensity into the first two acts. The third, however, drags: After witnessing the horrors at the Motel, the rest of the movie feels especially slow and unrewarding. The 143-minute running time could have been cut to a more manageable length, but doing so would require sacrificing vital historical information. Either way, a courtroom drama ending is lackluster in comparison to the prior events.
Every shot and moment in the Motel is painful to watch, mostly because messes like this do occur. The police’s incompetence and everyone’s visceral fear boils over into a situation where every possible thing that could go wrong does. Here, Bigelow boasts her knack at building tension and showing utter chaos candidly. The camera is always moving, and with each cut between the police and their suspects — hostages, rather — everything intensifies. These moments are some of Bigelow’s most outwardly suspenseful, even considering “The Hurt Locker”’s bomb disposal scenes.
Will Poulter (“The Revenant”) stars as Philip Krauss, a Detroit police officer who we first see fatally shoot a running Black shoplifter in the back. After returning to duty, he continues to cause harm, initiating the raid on the Algiers and killing an unarmed tenant. Krauss is a bitter taste of evil. He tries to cover up his wrongdoings — murdering innocent Black men in the Motel — by placing knives near the dead bodies to create the appearance that they were armed. I would like to know if this form of racism, paranoia and sloppiness still exists in the police force, though, I probably shouldn’t ask questions I don’t want the answers to. Poulter gives a performance worthy of an Oscar nom and sets the standard for portraying a realistic antagonist.
In an ensemble cast, Poulter is accompanied by many other actors in their prime, like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”’s John Boyega, playing a security guard who tries to ease the tension. Hannah Murray (“Game of Thrones”) plays Julie, one of two white women abused by the police during the incident. We even see John Krasinski (“The Office”) play an attorney defending the police officers in the movie’s third act. But ultimately, it’s Algee Smith’s (“The New Edition Story”) role as Larry Reed, singer for the R&B group The Dramatics, that stands out as the most believable. When he walks onstage to an empty Fox Theater, his presence feels real, making the audience feel like they’re struggling with him through his pursuit for success. Bigelow forces the best possible performances out of every actor, and without such vivid representations of actual people, the movie would flounder and be nothing more than a C-grade History Channel documentary.
For those who tote “Blue Lives Matter” insignia and proudly say “all lives matter,” “Detroit” should be first on the what-to-watch-next queue. It openly shows police acting with dangerous biases in ways that are not in the public’s best interest. At a time when our culture is more divided than united, “Detroit” is an invaluable movie to demonstrate that history does, in fact, repeat itself. Although flawed, it’s another gripping movie to add to Bigelow’s ever-increasing list of on-screen triumphs.