Set during the 1967 Detroit riots, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s latest docu-drama focuses on the Algiers Motel murders in which three young black men were killed during a police brutality incident. Bigelow and Boal have had success exploring real-world events like the Iraq war (The Hurt Locker, for which both won Oscars), and the hunt for Osama bin Laden (Zero Dark Thirty), with Bigelow’s hand-held aesthetic and Boal’s journalistic qualities combining to make powerful and intense action-driven dramas. The Algiers Motel murders are right up their alley, and especially suited to their half-documentary, half-narrative style since there is no clear timeline for what really happened inside the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25, 1967, which gives them the room to invent and tell a story, which they do with a mixed result.
The movie begins with an animated sequence setting up the state of racial tension in 1960s America, and then moves to a raid of an illegal nightclub in Detroit. With tensions already high, the raid turns into a riot, and as sections of Detroit burn, in come the state troopers and National Guard. Several key characters are established: Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard working near the Algiers Motel; Cleveland Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a Motown singer on the brink of making it; Fred (Jacob Latimore), Larry’s friend and sort-of roadie; and Officer Krauss (Will Poulter), an obvious psychopath who never should have been given a badge in the first place.
The beginning of Detroit is a little uneven as Bigelow sets the board and cuts between perspectives, but the overall sense of a city on the brink and individuals pushed to their limits is strong and effective. And small moments work well, too, particularly one in which Krauss and his two fellow officers talk about the riots and the black community as they cruise Detroit. They barely look old enough to shave, but their paternalism is clear and, frankly, disgusting. It’s a smooth piece of staging that sharply illustrates the “father knows best” attitude of white supremacy.
Once the action moves to the Algiers Motel, Detroit explodes into gripping, gut-wrenching horror. Krauss, already in trouble for shooting an unarmed black man in the back, is in his element, degrading and torturing the black men and two white women he finds in the Algiers Motel during a search for a sniper. That there is no sniper doesn’t matter—Krauss is determined to play his games and Poulter gives a wily, wired performance, digging into the most despicable aspects of Krauss’s power games without flinching. (The only other actor who really matches Poulter’s energy is Anthony Mackie as one of the motel residents Krauss terrorizes, and their scenes are among the sharpest in the film.) The motel scenes are brutal and sickening and go a long way to answering questions like, “Well why didn’t he just comply?” Bigelow effectively captures the chaos and terror of the moment when authority is abused and innocent people punished just for existing.
Unfortunately, Detroit falters in the aftermath of the Algiers Motel incident. The film skips between the victims’ families, a mini courtroom drama for the police trial, and scenes of Cleveland Larry Reed trying to put his life back together. After the churning terror of the motel, these post-script montages are anti-climactic and somewhat deflate the emotional impact of the motel scenes.
Bigelow and Boal have succeeded in the past by focusing their larger interests on specific stories—The Hurt Locker explores the toll battle and adrenaline addiction takes at large by zeroing in on one soldier within a high-pressure and elite Army unit, and Zero Dark Thirty reduces the war on terror to one woman’s perspective while trying to get a bureaucracy to believe her. In comparison, Detroit is not as sharply focused. The story is no less important and is certainly relevant to our present moment, but the narrative isn’t perched on any one point, and the result is a slightly rambling, shaggy story that doesn’t land as well as it could.
Detroit will make you sick and it’s TRYING to make you sick, so on that level, it works. But while Detroit is very good at making you feel things, it’s less good at telling a complete story. The film almost feels unfinished, as if there was a final punctuation left off the page. But perhaps that’s the point, because in real life, this story continues to play out time and time again. What is happening has happened, and will keep happening until we make a greater effort to change.