Katheryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” takes place in 1967 and is about right now. The film revisits the Motor City on the 50th anniversary of the largescale rioting there but the imagery — focused on a militarized police force given carte blanche to attack the African Americans they are sworn to protect — could well be borrowed from Ferguson, Cleveland or Baltimore in the last several years.
This makes “Detroit” a difficult film to critique — it feels more like a two-and-a-half-hour panic attack than a movie.
Bigelow begins with a contextualizing title sequence wherein paintings from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series are animated and provided with explanatory captions. She continues to strive for historical authenticity throughout by incorporating documentary footage and historical photographs.
The action of “Detroit” begins with the precipitating events at the Blind Pig club but, rather than a wide lens on the whole riot, the focus quickly narrows to the notorious events at the Algiers Motel, where a wide cast of characters converge.
Larry Reed (Algee Smith) is an ambitious singer in the Dramatics, a band whose Fox Theater debut is interrupted by the uprising. He flees for the relative safety of the Algiers, “Till it all blows over,” with his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore). We also meet Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a security guard trying to keep kids off the streets who is drawn to the motel from a nearby grocery store. Already at the Algiers is the fiery Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell, as excellent here as he was in “Straight Outta Compton”). He offers a blunt and prophetic assessment of his life: “When you’re black it’s like having a gun pointed at your head.”
Pointing many a weapon is the police officer Phil Krauss (Will Poulter, playing his character as unabashedly despicable), who shoots a man in the back as he carries a bag of groceries down the street. He later doubles down on his barbarism at the Algiers with fellow officers and accomplices in sadism Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole).
Echoing Tamir Rice’s murder, Carl Cooper fires a toy gun that precipitates homicide. The young man’s prank is interpreted by the authorities outside the motel to be “sniper fire” and soon a group of Detroit PD and National Guard troops are storming the Algiers in a welter of crashing doors, confused choreography and incoherent screaming.
The officers’ hysterical, racist fear of miscegenation is spurred when they discover an Army paratrooper called Greene (the predictably excellent Anthony Mackie) in his room with two white women, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Devers).
What they don’t find is a pistol of any kind, so they must make one appear. The sequence that follows is brutally long and that’s the point — Bigelow ensures we have no doubt about the torture undertaken by the authorities. After a full hour of violent interrogations, we notice the sheer number of bloody handprints the victims have slapped onto the motel wallpaper.
“Detroit” is the kind of film where a key plot twist comes down to whether all the policemen are aware of the rules of the “death game” they’re playing, in which a suspect is dragged into a room and mock executed in order to illicit a confession from the others. Each time Krauss or Flynn emerge, they always have the same message: “We need another one.”