There are really two films in director Kathryn Bigelow’s searing “Detroit.” One is the overview of the Detroit riots that broke out in the summer of 1967, wreaked havoc on the city and dramatized the dangerous gulf between whites and blacks. Within that framework, Bigelow also zeroes in on personal stories stemming from the renowned murders of blacks at the Algiers Motel that resulted in a trial and the accused cops going free. Where have we heard that outcome before?
Even a quick research into the motel atrocities indicates that the whole story is extended and complex. The screenplay for “Detroit,” written by Mark Boal, had to compress and take fictional liberties, but the result is carefully connected to what happened.
Depiction of blacks not connected to the rioting taken prisoner in the motel in Bigelow’s drama and ruthlessly abused by a murderous, psycho cop, with killings as a result, is very difficult to watch. The treatment of the victims is so ugly and harrowing that one cringes at the spectacle, and this continues for a considerable stretch of the film.
Apart from the existing racism, the situation is further inflamed at the discovery of two young white women partying with the African-Americans. The women, visiting from Ohio, are abused as well, but escape with their lives. Ultimately the film shows the trial that results, and that provides sharp relevance to today, all these years later, when police who kill blacks still walk free. Thus “Detroit” is timely as well as historical.
The film concentrates partly on young men who form a singing group, and after a scheduled appearance is thwarted when the riot results in the theater being evacuated, they are caught up in the terror. There is also a black security officer who tries to keep calm and is called an Uncle Tom, but as he witnesses what happens at the motel he is powerless to interfere with the police and the National Guard that has been called into the city.
A problem with the film is that it is a hybrid, a mix of documentary-style reportage on the riot itself, and the drama of the individuals at the core. Attention to the singers falls into the pattern of show biz aspirations and later seems a bit corny, true or not, when a defector from the group, who says that its soul music is more listened to by white people, joins a church choir.
The acting is excellent, including by John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, Jacob Latimore, Kaitlyn Dever, Hannah Murray and Anthony Mackie among others. Director Bigelow provides many effective cinematic touches, ranging from the spectacle of the riots, the combined force of local police and the National Guard and the chilling intimate scenes of murder and survival. “Detroit” is an extremely tough film that pulls no punches in its exposure of racism and injustice. It is explodes upon us as one of the year’s extremely important films. An Annapurna Pictures release. Reviewed July 30, 2017.