‘Detroit’ Review: Kathryn Bigelow Powerfully Connects Historic Riots to Modern Discord

This searing historical drama traces the roots — and the devastating aftermath — of the city’s 1967 unrest

“Detroit” feels like a war film — which, in many ways, it is.

During the summer of 1967, in Detroit and other major cities, discontent over racial injustice was escalating. Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful, immeasurably tense drama captures the volatility and importance of this incendiary time. The five-day uprising, which resulted in hundreds of injuries and 43 deaths, began with a police raid of an after-hours nightclub. Shortly thereafter, swaths of homes and businesses were burned down. It was often hard to distinguish between victim and perpetrator.

This extraordinarily searing film begins with the July 1967 raid and powerfully depicts the early escalation of the riots. It even more commandingly unpacks the scope of the unrest, by examining the experience of participants, specifically a group of unwitting victims.

“Detroit” has a vital sense of authenticity, rooted as it is in history, conveyed via Bigelow’s meticulously crafted cinema vérité style that, essentially, thrusts the viewer into the tense events. She is an expert at managing suspense and deftly blending sensitivity with a journalistic sense of details. Her signature filmmaking style — kinetic, visceral and immersive — works brilliantly here. “Detroit” is a work of consummate skill which kicks into high gear when the focus turns from widespread civil unrest to the very specific.

A report of gunfire near a National Guard staging area propelled Detroit police and Michigan state troopers, as well as a private security guard, to search the nearby Algiers Motel. What followed was a vicious and prolonged interrogation of motel guests: The police spent hours intimidating and physically attacking a dozen guests, in an effort to force a confession about the gunshots. Their brutal efforts result in the point-blank killing of three unarmed African-American men and the brutal beatings of nine other men and women. No confession resulted.

The film incorporates historical record and personal accounts with dialogue written by Mark Boal, the screenwriter with whom Bigelow collaborated on “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Boal has woven a riveting fact-based story, bolstered by extensive research, into an uncommonly compelling narrative.

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The crimes that occurred inside the Algiers Motel that night, though publicized at the time, are no longer widely known or referenced. Bigelow has vividly reconstructed them so that audiences experience them in real time. Bigelow, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (“The Big Short”) and editor William Goldenberg (“Argo”) intercut existing archival footage with fluid, unobtrusive documentary-style visuals, intensifying the power and authenticity of the narrative and the viewer’s personal connection to it.

At the heart of the story is burgeoning Motown talent Larry Reed, lead singer of R&B group The Dramatics, played superbly by Algee Smith (“Earth to Echo”). As the story unfolds, tragedy strikes all around and envelops him. That fateful night changes the course of his life. With his incandescently beautiful voice, Reed was deeply committed to his musical career. Earlier that evening he and his fellow Dramatics were scheduled to play Detroit’s Fox Theater, but their show was cancelled when the venue was evacuated due to nearby rioting. Reed and his pal Fred Temple (a terrific Jacob Latimore, “Collateral Beauty”) take refuge at the nearby Algiers Motel.

Another person who ended up at the Algiers that night was security guard Melvin Dismukes (an excellent John Boyega), a decent man forced into an untenable position. The film’s only flaw is not telling enough of Dismukes’ story. We see him arrested and framed for the murders that took place in the motel, and later see him freed. Bigelow omits the trial in between and how the black community turned against him.

The ensemble cast is topnotch, particularly during the emotionally taxing and relentlessly brutal scenes in the motel. Anthony Mackie (who also starred in “Hurt Locker”) is terrific as a courageous hotel guest accused of being a pimp because of his friendship with two young white women, who police insist are prostitutes.

Bigelow’s explosive film is all the more emotionally charged because of her close examination of the abuse of power by white cops, led by the callous and malevolent officer Philip Krauss, played chillingly by Will Poulter (“We’re the Millers”). The riots — and the night of terror inside the Algiers Motel — are an American tragedy, whose reverberations continued to be felt: in Los Angeles in 1992, in Ferguson in 2014, in Baltimore in 2015, and in far too many individual clashes between white police officers and black men.

The trial of the abusive police officers is featured in the final third of the film. The officers are found not guilty of any wrongdoing; the parallels between the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Philando Castile are resoundingly clear. Bigelow has said she hopes the film will spark a much-needed conversation on race. Cinematically, she takes a fascinating route toward that goal: a direct path from the riots to an intense look at the Algiers Motel incident, as it unfolded and in the subsequent trial.

The first third of the film juxtaposes a musical celebration inside the Fox Theater with the mounting chaos on the streets. (The film’s Motown-heavy score is a fantastic addition.) Meanwhile, we see people looting, setting buildings on fire, throwing Molotov cocktails. The police are soon backed by National Guard troops. It’s a startlingly incongruous visual: behemoth tanks, vessels of war, wending their way through downtown avenues. The second third of the film focuses on the tortuous, claustrophobic and stomach-turning events inside the hotel, with the final third centered on the trial and its outrage-provoking verdict.

In an animated prologue, Bigelow incorporates African-American artist Jacob Lawrence’s evocative series of panels on the great migration. The text is provided by historian and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. It’s fitting that Gates contributed to the film, given his own 2009 arrest, which drew national attention to race relations and law enforcement. The prologue contextualizes racial segregation.

Weighty context informs “Detroit” throughout, reminding viewers of lasting, unresolved racial injustice in the U.S. Decades of bigotry, discrimination and prejudice loom large as we watch the film. One can only hope that awareness will be raised and consciousness awakened by those who see the film, which should be required viewing. The legacy of the Algiers Motel case has contributed to where we are today, still struggling with a perilous racial divide.

“Detroit” is an impeccably-rendered and pivotal battle in a much longer, shattering war.