In a single film, Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, Near Dark) has captured the history and the present of both the resilient city of Detroit and America. Set almost 50 years ago to the day (July 25, 1967), this story feels vital, like a living thing that is shifting and growing in ways that paint a picture of a past that still somehow manages to be a reflection of today. Detroit is as incendiary, pulse-pounding, relevant, and essential a work as you are likely to see this year, and it’s easily one of the best films of the year.
Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (who also wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) have an incredible sense of scope and keeping multiple storylines going, hurtling toward an almost shockingly inevitable conclusion. Every piece of Detroit encapsulates a portion of the city as it was in 1967. There’s an up-and-coming music group, The Dramatics, about to debut before their biggest crowd to date; there are are police attempting to quell a citywide rebellion of black citizens enraged at multiple examples of overreach and brutality by those sworn to protect them; there are two young white women off the bus from Ohio feeling a bit rebellious and looking to see what life in the big, scary city is like; there’s a recently discharged veteran who is just home from the Vietnam War, looking to decompress; and there’s a black grocery store security guard, who just wants everyone to come out of this alive. And somehow all of these people and more ended up at the Algiers Motel, facing an uncertain future with a racially charged rebellion going on around them.
The security guard Dismukes (John Boyega from Star Wars: The Force Awakens) will likely be the entry point into this story for most. He might be the most level-headed man in the city during the riots. He brings fresh coffee to National Guardsmen just so they know his face and don’t accidentally shoot him if things gets crazy on their street. But I found myself drawn most to Larry (Algee Smith), the talented singer of the Dramatics, whose gig is ruined when the theater is forced to evacuate. He and best friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) end up at the Algiers in the hopes of riding out the violence in the streets. Maybe they’ll meet some young ladies and stay up late drinking and getting to know them. They do in fact meet the girls from Ohio (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever), who introduce them to other people in the hotel, including ringleader Carl (Jason Mitchell, who played Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton), who decides it would be funny to fire a harmless starter pistol in the direction of the National Guard nearby, which begins a lengthy siege that left some dead and many more physically and emotionally traumatized.
Three Detroit police officers enter the building and systematically terrorize everyone inside seeking a confession about the location of the gun and who was shooting it. Will Poulter (The Revenant) plays Krauss, who earlier that day had already shot a black man dead for looting and was possibly facing murder charges. He and two others (played by Jack Reynor and
Ben O’Toole) search the rooms, find nothing, and beginning verbally and physically intimidating everyone. The saving grace (for a time) is that Dismukes has also made his way into the motel and is silently keeping an eye on things, probably saving many lives in the process.
Many of the scenes in the motel are difficult to watch and impossible to ignore. The police pretend to shoot suspects in separate rooms to scare the others against the wall in the man lobby into confessions. The wild card of the group is the veteran Greene (Anthony Mackie), who seems to go out of his way not to be noticed or resist, and when the police find out who he is, they reluctantly back off on grilling him. Emotions escalate, and the resulting tension is almost unbearable to the point where I’m guessing a few uneasy audience members may walk out. But if you can stomach it, you’ll see that Bigelow is an absolute master at making all of this feel much too real.
One of the many reasons Detroit works so well is that it doesn’t end when the events at the Algiers end. The filmmakers give us a look at the often-ignored aftermath, when the police are put on trial for murder and the way their expert lawyer (played in an eleventh-hour appearance by John Krasinski) picks apart testimony by the victims. We also get a look at Larry’s life after the incident, and it should come as no surprise that he finds it near impossible to return to the carefree life of a singer after enduring such brutality. He reminds us that it’s not only those who died who are the victims of such degradation.
I’m not sure what it says that all three of the actors playing police (as well as John Boyega) are non-Americans, but I do wonder if Bigelow wanted to put some culpable distance between the actors doing the brutalizing and those being tortured. I can’t imagine that white, American actors wouldn’t be lining up to work with someone of Bigelow’s stature; at the same time, might they be worried about being identified in such explosive times in America? A think piece for another day…
Detroit is as modern as a history lesson gets, and the results are astonishing. In a perfect world, it will spark discussion, change attitudes, and put this incident in its proper place on the timeline of America. I’m still deciding if it’s the best film of the year, but it’s certainly the most important.
Beginning today, the film has a limited opening in Chicago at the AMC River East 21 and Showplace ICON theaters, and opens wide beginning Friday, August 4.