One of the finest films in theaters right now is a historical drama based on events not widely known to the American public, one set in a burning war zone where the young men whose lives hang in the balance have little hope for escape.
No, I’m not talking about Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, but about Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, which finds the Oscar-winning director of 2009’s The Hurt Locker once again collaborating with journalist Mark Boal, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Hurt Locker and Bigelow’s 2013 film Zero Dark Thirty. Set on a hot summer evening in 1967, their latest work focuses on the civil unrest that swept through the Motor City in the days after a police raid on an after-hours club. Decades of racial repression and injustice fueled rioting and looting that left 43 dead, more than 1,200 injured, 7,000 arrested and at least 1,000 buildings burned.
Two nights after the uprising began, a report of sniper fire sent patrolling members of the National Guard, the Detroit Police, the Michigan State Police and a lone private security guard scrambling toward what they deemed to be the source of the gunshots, a three-story Victorian house that served as an annex of the bordering Algiers Motel. It had been a refuge from the violence, but it would become the site of a massacre.
After riddling the annex with bullets, the law enforcement officials raided the building, rounding up the terrified—and innocent—suspects who were holed up inside. What began as an interrogation rapidly devolved into a kangaroo court as white police officers doled out frontier justice to a group of young black men and the two young white women who had the audacity to be enjoying the night with them.
Bigelow has proven herself a master of orchestrating cinematic time bombs. In Detroit, however, Bigelow allows the powder keg of history to ignite during the very first frames. She and indispensable cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (director of photography on The Hurt Locker) expertly merge archival newsreel footage of the riots with vérité-style scenes they filmed in Massachusetts locations, including Boston, Lawrence, Brockton and Lynn. (Who says that tax credit isn’t being put to good use?)
Once the violent stage is set, though, Bigelow and Boal begin introducing us to the film’s key players—chief among them racist cop Krauss (The Revenant’s Will Poulter) and Larry Cleveland Reed (Algee Smith), the young soul singer of up-and-coming group the Dramatics—setting them on a collision course toward the fateful encounter in the Algiers annex, which was filmed inside a Dorchester residence.
Bit by bit, Bigelow ratchets up the tension during the film’s extended centerpiece, an hourlong midsection that plays out in real time. Krauss becomes the de facto leader of the raid; having already shot and killed one fleeing suspect in the back, he threatens to kill even more until the gun that was supposedly used as a sniper weapon is produced. Meanwhile, fellow police officers Flynn (Hacksaw Ridge’s Ben O’Toole) and the nervous Demens (Sing Street’s Jack Reynor) compliantly toe the line. The National Guard wants little to do with the enfolding scene, however, and the state troopers withdraw altogether. Also caught in the middle is a private security guard, Melvin Dismukes (Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ John Boyega), a black man accused of being an “Uncle Tom” when he’s really just doing his best to keep the peace.
His efforts are of little solace to those bearing the brunt of Krauss’ racist theatrics and brutality, however. Beyond Larry, the terrified victims of Krauss and company’s assault include Larry’s good friend Fred (Collateral Beauty’s Jacob Latimore), who uneasily accompanied him to the annex as guests of the free-spirited Julie (Game of Thrones’ Hannah Murray) and Karen (Justified’s Kaitlyn Dever), and Vietnam veteran Greene (The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie), whom Krauss tauntingly accuses of being the young women’s “pimp.” By the end of this horrific encounter, three of the Algiers’ guests will be dead, nine will have been assaulted, and the cops will depart the annex as though nothing ever happened.
In February, Jordan Peele’s Get Out offered an explosive critique of racism, but his scares were tempered with laughs; Bigelow offers no such release. Sadly, the type of horrors she’s unflinchingly put on display here are as familiar today as they were 50 years ago. ◆
Starring Algee Smith, John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jeremy Strong and John Krasinski. Written by Mark Boal. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Fenway and in the suburbs.