Review: Kathryn Bigelow's 'Detroit' Is A Powerful, Intense Look At Racial Injustice

It's fair to say that Kathryn Bigelow's three most recent films, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and the harrowing Detroit, comprise a loose-knit trilogy. Each chronicles a different kind of combat zone where the rules are often ignored or simply non-existent, especially to those on the outside looking in. But they are all each relevant and hard-hitting in their own way, exposing ugly truths that don't get reported on the evening. Detroit is Bigelow's toughest, most visceral movie yet. While it takes place in 1967 during the racially-charged 12th Street Riots, the prejudice, injustice, and police violence could be ripped from the headlines today.

That is the most painful part of watching Detroit; that so much of what happens in it is familiar. So much remains unchanged even as the film commemorates fifty years since the riots tore the city in half, divided along racial lines.  One of the most storied events of the five-day riots took place on the third day at the Algiers Motel, when three black men were killed by Detroit police, while Michigan state police and the national guard raided the building in search of a supposed sniper. Over the course of the night, twelve people, ten black men and two white women presumed to be prostitutes (the cops called them "nigger lovers" just for hanging out with black men), were held captive, interrogated through torture, and beaten savagely. Bigelow's film focuses on this event as a crystalizing moment of the riots. The tensions, elevated through years of police brutality and injustice, were seen in the Algiers that night.

A brief, animated intro explaining how the riots started gets the movie off to a confusing start, simply because it's such a non-Bigelow approach to take. The entire first act is atypical for Bigelow and her screenwriting partner, Mark Boal, teasing an all-encompassing look at the chaos that ensued. It's a clumsy beginning, followed later by a clumsier dismount. The meat of the film, where Bigelow finds greatest emotional purchase, is in the unbearably tense second act. A group of corrupt white cops (led by an intimidating Will Poulter) barge into the Algiers Motel in search of a shooter. In truth, there was no shooter, just a guy (Jason Mitchell) with a starter pistol showing off to a room of his friends and a pair of white girls (Kaitlyn Dever and Game of Thrones' Hannah Murray). Caught up in the mix were soul singer Larry (Algee Smith) and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore), who were just trying to get off the streets and into safety. Little did they know they picked the worst possible place to look for it. After gunning down one black man immediately upon entering the building, the cops immediately begin making excuses ("Why was he running?") and planting evidence to justify the killing. They need to find the sniper to make everything legit, whether one actually exists or not.

Caught in the middle is security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who has perhaps the most interesting character arc of all. Seen as an Uncle Tom by his peers for being black and an authority figure when authority figures are the city's biggest problem, Dismukes tries to carry a certain level of dignity in his every interaction. He's walking a tightrope with just about everyone he encounters. He's deferential to the white cops he knows are dangerous, and he's respectful to fellow blacks who look down on him. His middle-ground approach becomes hard to maintain when the officers at the Algiers prove unrelenting in their cruelty and racism. He's forced to ponder why his presence doesn't seem to offend them, and if he really is the house negro others claim him to be.

The bulk of the 143-minute runtime is spent in the Algiers, with suspects' faces crammed into the walls, the sound of shotgun blasts reverberating from behind closed doors. It's incredibly tough and infuriating, and some will probably think it goes on for too long. But you know what? It's supposed to be tough. It's supposed to be infuriating to see the punishment inflicted on these people. And why? Because a couple of white girls had the audacity to be in a room with black men? If this hour is tough for you, imagine how an entire night of this madness must have been like for those on the business end of the cops' guns. Bigelow wants you to feel every bit of their pain and terror, and she does a masterful job of putting you right in the Algiers Motel with them. What would you have done in their situation? Would you have told the cops about the toy gun? If so? Why? And do you think it would have mattered? These are all things you'll ponder during the film and long after it's over.

I imagine the answer to these questions will be very different based on your personal experiences with the police. And to put it bluntly, the answers will likely be very different depending on if you're black or white. While the two white women certainly get their fair share of mistreatment, Bigelow and Boal don't shy away from the "privilege" afforded to them.

Usually so good at pairing down her movies to the essentials, Bigelow overstuffs Detroit with a chapter on the ensuing court trials, but leaves out the detail that would have shown the true aftermath of the riots. Other than one character we don't really get to see how the events at the Algiers affected the victims or the perpetrators. A "Where are they now" epilogue does a better job at filling in the blanks, and seeing the real-life faces of those involved hits you with one final punch in the gut. That anything like this could happen in the United States of America is truly shameful and must never be forgotten. That situations like this continue to happen now is an embarrassment, and Detroit makes a powerful statement that we must fight to put it to an end.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5