Detroit is not an easy watch; it is as harrowing a cinematic experience as you’ll ever have. There isn’t enough to be said to warn you about the terror of what Kathryn Bigelow has presented, not even if you’ve read all about the horrific events depicted here. To call it difficult is to scratch the surface.
But it’s also important. The disgust you feel is visceral, and it goddamn well should be. Any disgust you might feel watching it pales in comparison to the horror faced by the real life victims of the events that played out in the Algiers motel. Your discomfort should be seen as a tool for understanding, and any sickness you feel should be a reminder that we haven’t come as far as we want to think we have since the civil rights movement.
As much as Bigelow sticks to the time and place of her subject matter, it’s hard not to draw a distinction between the brutality of the night in question and the realities of today. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Thousands of others, across the country. Watching Detroit, it’s striking how similar things play out in courts today—meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Despite its title, Detroit is not a play by play of the Detroit riots of 1967. Those five deadly days in Motown are merely the backdrop for a story even more horrible, the events that took place at the Algiers motel on the night of July 25. Local police and national guardsmen, responding to a potential sniper threat at the motel, rounded up the guests and, under the guise of interrogating them, proceeded to psychologically and physically brutalize them throughout the night, leading to multiple deaths at the hands of those who were meant to protect and serve.
The bulk of Bigelow’s film takes place in the motel itself, where a rising young singer, Larry Reed, of the Dramatics (Algee Smith), along with his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) have sought refuge for the night after the riots threatened and cancelled their breakout performance. The tense but lively party atmosphere is disrupted when Carl (Jason Mitchell) shoots a starter pistol outside of his window, drawing the attention of law enforcement officials. Led by Officer Krauss (Will Poulter), the police storm the Algiers, and over the course of the evening they play a “death game,” wherein they sequester guests in separate rooms and fire their guns, making the other believe that they’re being killed for failing to give up evidence.
Bigelow employs the same pseudo-documentary style for which she won in Oscar in 2010. Similar to The Hurt Locker, Detroit doesn’t tell the story so much as brings you into it. The shaky camera and chaotic framing creates an uncomfortable, voyeuristic illusion. The audience becomes an unwitting part of the action, where we are confronted by our passive refusal to acknowledge, or even to know, the realities faced by the young men and women on the streets of Detroit (or Ferguson, or LA, or NYC, or…).
The events of the Algiers did not occur in a vacuum. These were cops emboldened by wrist slaps and inaction, who had learned by experience that there weren’t even lines to cross, let alone to push. We see this early on as Krauss shoots and kills a retreating looter in the back. While a homicide investigation is going to open, he’s sent back out into the streets without question or, really, even reprimand. The systemic indifference coupled with the systemic racism was the powder keg that exploded into the Detroit riots, and it’s one that threatens to explode again today.
Poulter is absolutely terrifying in his role, becoming a real life horror movie villain who embodies the reason why so many distrust police and authorities. Often, you forget you’re watching a movie, and even then, you can’t forget that this is a movie based on an actual event—one that was painstakingly researched by Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who collaborated with Bigelow on Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker). The realism is vivid, and Poulter and his co-stars are acutely aware of their duty to get things right. Throughout the movie, we see the soul of Larry break under the duress of torture and Smith is absolutely devastating to watch.
So, too, with John Boyega (The Force Awakens) who plays local security guard Melvin Dismukes, who was on the scene at the Algiers to try and advocate and be a witness for the kids in the motel. Boyega’s portrayal is one of stunned helplessness. As the situation spirals further and further out of control, he tries to be a mitigating factor, but it’s evident that he’s in over his head as he tries to curtail the violence of the monsters in the building. Added to that is the fact that Dismukes was subsequently charged with murder in the trial that followed, along with Krauss and his partners.
None of Detroit is easy to watch, but the shock, anger, disgust, and sadness you’ll feel are important to lean into. What you’re witnessing is a microcosm of America, one that sadly represents so much of past, present, and, sadly, future. The scars of Detroit and the Algiers have yet to fade on the face of the nation, and Bigelow has held up a mirror to remind us of our sins. Difficult and horrifying? Absolutely. But if we stare at our reflection long and hard enough, perhaps we can begin to confront what we still refuse to acknowledge.
Detroit is now playing in theaters everywhere.