Kathryn Bigelow delivers a tense and terrifying telling of the 1967 Detroit Riots with one of the strongest ensemble casts of the year.
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have proven to be an infallible pair when it comes to portraying real-life war events — The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty are among the best movies of the century so far. But in their next collaboration, they went away from the present-day Middle East conflicts and turned their sights to the 1967 Detroit Riots, which came on the heels of similar riots in several cities across the country. Bigelow treats the film like a docudrama more than her others by intercutting scenes with footage and photos from the actual events. By filming with the shaky cam quality of the archival footage, Bigelow begins to blur the line between the film and the actual artifacts from 1967.
In the macro sense, Bigelow is sure to give the story a time and place. Not just saying that it’s in Detroit in America in 1967, but about the rise of Detroit and how race plays into the city’s DNA. While the riots are obviously at the center of the movie, its focus is on one specific incident that took place in the middle of them at the Algiers Motel.
Like the best screenwriters, which Mark Boal has proven that he is, the movie establishes the three main characters that we will follow. Larry Reed (Algee Smith, who does Oscar-caliber work) is the lead singer of The Dramatics, a Motown group that is on the up and up when the riots break out. When their gig gets broken up because the violence has escalated, Reed and his friend Fred take refuge in the Algiers. Meanwhile, Detroit police officer Philip Krauss guns down a looter simply getting groceries in broad daylight. After being chewed out by his superior, he’s let back out on the street with even more aggression than before. Lastly, Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard tasked with guarding a grocery store during the riots, is in a unique position as a middleman between the law enforcement and the rioters. However, he finds that both sides have reasons to discount them.
The Algiers Motel seems to be indifferent to the events surrounding it. Music is playing. People are dancing and having fun. However, nothing could prepare them for the nightmare that they are about to experience. Carl (Jason Mitchell, who makes the most of his small role), a guest in the motel, shoots a fake pistol filled with blanks at a National Guard outpost near the motel — the National Guard and State Police were called in to help control the riots. Convinced that there must be a sniper in the motel, several policemen, including Krauss, national guardsman, and Dismukes make their way into the hotel. The policemen gather up the guests, many of them teenagers, line them up against the wall and begin interrogating them to find either the gun or the shooter.
From there, the movie becomes a horror movie that is one of the tensest experiences at the movies in years. Krauss, drunk with power, begins to torment the motel’s inhabitants to try and suss out where the “shots” came from. Poulter is absolutely terrifying as the dictator-esque officer. He begins to resemble Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange more and more as the hours tick by and he begins to physically and emotionally abuse the dozen or so in the motel.
Those people include Larry, Fred, two white girls (Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray), and Greene (Anthony Mackie, great here), a Vietnam war veteran. Bigelow doesn’t give a moment of relief during the entire incident. She holds tight on the actors’ faces to give a sense of claustrophobia. We get to see the incident from the perspective of the victims and the antagonists, which makes the impact even harder. The actions of the officers here are so clearly put on display that fear and hatred both make it into your mind. Even when national guardsman start to question the officer’s actions, they are reluctant to intervene for fear of suffering blowback. Bigelow gives incredible detail that makes you consider the incident from all angles. And all of them are terrifying.
The last third moves at a slower pace than the first two and plays a lot like the closing text of another movie. It tells us where the story goes from there. It’s effective in the sense that it helps audiences feel the effects of systemic racism in our country and, mostly through Smith’s Larry Reed, the individual plights that black people feel at its hand. However, narratively the scenes are long-winded. In particular, courtroom scenes featuring John Krasinski as a defense lawyer for the police department feel out of place and could have easily been summed up in title text and still left an impact. The one aspect of the final act that does work is Larry Reed’s story.
Detroit comes exactly 50 years after the actual events took place in 1967 and the movie makes you feel the outrage of the time. However, movies are as much about the timing as they are about the actual filmmaking. And Detroit comes at a time where that outrage is as high as ever. Whether or not Bigelow and Boal should have been the people to tell this story, what is up on the screen, at least for the middle third, is a breathtaking film experience that is incredibly affecting.