Brutal 'Detroit' offers the opposite of summer movie escapism

While most summer movies deliver escapism, Detroit provides just the opposite.

Kathryn Bigelow’s docudrama arrests you, lines you up against a wall, points a gun at your head, and leaves it there for an hour – it’s an account of police brutality that is itself brutal by design.

Fact-based Detroit is set in 1967, when a police raid there sparked riots that turned into a five-day uprising. In the chaos that followed, stores were looted, properties burned, civilians shot (by authorities and by each other), and police and guardsmen were targeted by bullets. More than 40 people were killed.

A brief animated sequence sets the historical stage – The Great Migration brings African Americans to the north, whites move to the suburbs, and jobs follow them, leaving a black population beset by unemployment and overseen by a white police force notorious for brutality.

(Throughout the ’60s, similar dynamics led to rioting in several cities, including Philadelphia in 1964).

Bigelow then blends archival footage with her own to paint what follows as “real.” A surging crowd confronts police, who retreat under a hail of bricks and bottles. Order is lost. Some areas are not patrolled at all, some are policed with excessive force: The National Guard rolled tanks through neighborhoods, troopers lined the streets with fixed bayonets. Few directors — maybe none — handle these information-through-action sequences as well as Bigelow.

The narrative singles out a few faces in this seething crowd, and follows them as they converge on the site of events that define the movie.

John Boyega (The Force Awakens) is Melvin Dismukes, a black security guard hired to protect a retail store. He ventures out to calm nerves when he sees National Guard troops roll into the area. Relative newcomer Algee Smith is Larry Reed, a member of the Dramatics, a singing group scheduled to perform in a Motown show at the Fox Theater, that are pushed out into the streets when news of the rioting clears the venue. Will Poulter (The Revenant)  is a racist cop named Krauss, already eyed by superiors for shooting a “rioter” in the back.

Circumstances funnel all of them to the Algiers Motel. Police and guardsmen – Boyega’s Dismukes tags along – think they’ve been targeted by a sniper holed up at the hotel, but when they arrive they don’t find a weapon, just a bedraggled group of hotel guests. Some are there to party, one is a serviceman (Anthony Mackie, who starred in Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker) just back from Vietnam, others are trying to avoid the trouble outside. Larry has retreated to the hotel with pal Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), and ends up chatting up two white teen girls (Game of Thrones‘ Hannah Murray, Last Man Standing‘s Kaitlyn Dever).

To this point, Detroit is a nimble multicharacter docudrama. It’s what you might expect from Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who tracked a dozen characters through the cogs and gears of multiple years of Zero Dark Thirty.

But when the police bust down the door of the hotel, the movie slows almost to a halt, which seems to be its intent. Bigelow wants us to feel, in some measure, what the victims felt: Captive, powerless, expendable.

There is a risk, though, in this exercise in dehumanization. Detroit, for a long hour, is dominated by Poulter’s preening, racist thug. The situation freezes character development (even among the victims), and narrative. You simply wait for hatred to express itself in another murder, another beating. There are no moral choices to be made.

Bigelow has won praise for an unblinking realism that supplants the theatrical, scripted (some would say sanitized) neatness of a more typical Hollywood treatment. On that note I’d push back – was, say, The Ox-Bow Incident too slick? John Singleton channeled that movie effectively in Rosewood, another historical revisiting of racist violence.

Boal and Bigelow leave avenues of dramatic potential unexplored. White guardsmen and troopers know what Krauss is doing is wrong, but leave the scene rather than intervene. And the choices facing Dismukes, who’s called an Uncle Tom but is one of the few who acts to save lives, could have been a movie in itself.

When we finally leave the hotel, the movie’s energy is spent. You feel this in the perfunctory courtroom scenes that follow, and prosecutors fail to convict Krauss and the others (mop-haired John Krasinski is their lawyer). It is this acquittal, by the way, that made Boal’s altering of events a legal necessity – turning police characters into composites and changing other details, such as the order in which shootings occurred. These details can be read in John Hersey’s paperback account, The Algiers Motel Incident, cobbled from witnesses and published just a year after the incident.

Boal did his own research, including interviews with Larry Reed, who is featured in the movie’s epilogue. He’s so stunned by witnessing sanctioned execution that he abandons his career in pop music for something more meaningful and sustaining.

He has played gospel music in church ever since.

MOVIES

Detroit

    • Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. With John Boyega, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Hannah Murray, Will Poulster, and Kaitlyn Dever. Distributed by Warner Bros.

  • Running time: 142 minutes
  • Parent's guide: R (violence)
  • Playing at: Area theaters