Watching the new movie Detroit prompts several feelings. Frustration. Incomprehension. Anger. Fear. Sadness. What never comes is any sense of relief, but that's as it should be, since the people involved in the film’s real-life events never got any, even after that one particular night was far behind them.
The film mostly centers on events that transpired at the Algiers Motel in Detroit on July 25 and 26, 1967. At that point, riots stemming from a racial incident had been happening across the city for several days. The ongoing violence had kept tensions high for both the African American populace and law enforcement, which had grown to include not just city police, but also the state police and National Guard.
When gunshots were heard from the vicinity of the Algiers, the motel’s annex was raided by police, with multiple people getting lined up for questioning. Over the course of the evening, every occupant in the lineup had been beaten by the police to some degree, with three of them ending up dead.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, reteaming for the third time after The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, have created a story that is powerful in its execution, if not its focus. They painstakingly show a series of events that led up to the night at the Algiers, indicating how the decisions made by multiple people can, inadvertently or purposefully, lead to tragedy.
While it’s the actions of the police, especially one particular patrolman (Will Poulter), who are to blame for the violence at the motel, Bigelow and Boal place import on the inaction of a variety of people for the continuation or escalation of the events. The complicated part of human nature will likely lead to audiences wanting to scream at the injustice of what they are watching, and how it might have been stopped if the right person had spoken up at the right time.
The cast has a handful of known actors (Poulter, John Boyega, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie), but the vast majority of the performers have yet to become stars. This is a smart play by the filmmakers, as it allows the emotions of the film to be played out with few preconceived notions by the audience. The one big exception to that is Poulter, whose distinctive face has already led to him playing multiple bad guys at the young age of 24.
There is much to laud about Detroit, with its deft handling of tricky subject matter and the performances of much of the cast. But the film loses focus toward the end, with Bigelow and Boal deciding they have to include every little part of the story. If they had pulled back a bit, they might have ended up with a masterpiece.
Detroit opens at Alamo Drafthouse on Tuesday, August 1 and citywide on August 4.