In Kathryn Bigelow’s drama, a seemingly endless night in 1967 Detroit unfolds, showing what is known as the Algiers Motel Incident, in which three unarmed black teenagers were shot and killed by a group of law enforcement officers. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
Kathryn Bigelow’s timely, taut “Detroit” puts us inside a real-life nightmare; shoving its audience’s face in injustice, not letting us look away. Unfolding on a long, hot July night in 1967 Detroit, it depicts what is known as the Algiers Motel Incident (the title of a well-known book by John Hersey about that night), in which three unarmed black teenagers were shot and killed by a group of law enforcement officers. Several other young men and women were badly beaten.
“I’m gonna assume you’re all criminals,” the ringleader cop (Will Poulter) tells the group in the film, “because, to be honest, you probably are.”
Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director of “The Hurt Locker,” again teams with writer Mark Boal for a film that follows in the hard-to-watch footsteps of their 2013 drama “Zero Dark Thirty”: This is, essentially, a story of torture, as that long night unfolds in the motel annex; you can practically smell the sweat. After a collage-like, disorienting opening sequence, depicting a raid that began the several days of violent standoff in the city, “Detroit” slows down just a bit. We’re introduced to a good-hearted security guard (John Boyega) who’s working two jobs, and a local R&B group whose lead singer (Algee Smith) hopes to find stardom. And then the horror begins to unfold, in real time, almost unbearably.
Movie Review ★★★½
‘Detroit,’ with John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, John Krasinski, Will Poulter, Jason Mitchell, Jacob Lattimore, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, from a screenplay by Mark Boal. 143 minutes. Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language. Several theaters.
This is a feature film and not a documentary (on-screen notes at the end explain that while the film is based on meticulous research, some dramatic license was by necessity taken), but Bigelow has a way of making scripted drama feel like an utterly gripping newsreel. That’s not necessarily all to the good — I found myself wishing for more character development — but you can’t deny the power of the filmmaking. That nightmare, for those present (some of whom advised on the film), would surely have seemed endless. It seems a step toward empathy — just a step, but a crucial one — to slip into their shoes that night, to breathe that hot, bitter air.