There is no nice or pretty way to tell a story about the systemic oppression and mistreatment of black people in the United States. It’s fitting then that Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit ,” an account of the murders of three unarmed black men that took place in the Algiers Motel in late July 1967, is neither — it is an all-out assault on your senses and soul.
It’s hard to overstate just how visceral and harrowing an experience it is. “Detroit” is a well-made and evocative film that is also numbingly brutal with little to no reprieve. And while it might be the only true way to tell this story, it’s also one that is not going to be for everyone. The stomach-churning horror begins immediately and does not let up for 2 hours and 23 minutes.
To set the stage for the Algiers Motel, Bigelow begins by speeding through the history of black people in United States with animated acrylics and pounding music — emancipation, the great migration, white flight and the racist zoning practices that led to the overcrowding of black residents in urban pockets. Tensions have already reached a tipping point, and then in the summer of 1967, Detroit police bust an after-hours club in what would become the inciting incident for the riots.
Three days after the riots begin, a local singing group called The Dramatics are about to go on stage at a big, crowded theater hoping to get their big break, but are interrupted and sent home due to the events outside. The men exit the theater in their sparkly suits into what looks like a war zone. As they run through the streets they assure every cop who isn’t already beating someone with a night stick that they’re just on their way home. Bigelow shows all of this with handheld, ground level docudrama realism. There is no orienting yourself to the bigger picture, only what is right in front of you.
The charismatic lead singer Larry (Algee Smith) and his buddy Fred (Jacob Latimore) decide to peel off and get an $11 room at the Algiers and wait out the night. There they meet two white party girls, a veteran, Greene (a terrific Anthony Mackie), and a provocateur, Carl (Jason Mitchell), who plays around with a starter pistol that eventually catches the attention of the police in the area. The officers, who we’ve already learned are rotten, storm the motel on the hunt for the sniper they presume is there.
The local police, led by a maniacal, hotheaded racist, Krauss (played by the English actor Will Poulter), kills Carl immediately and then continue to terrorize the guests relentlessly with inhuman torture tactics in what seems like an endless sequence of horror upon horror until two more end up dead and they call it a night.
Bigelow collaborated again with screenwriter Mark Boal on “Detroit,” which is perfectly evocative of this specific time and place, but lacking the perspective and illumination that one might hope a 50-year-old event would warrant. Perhaps they wanted to leave conclusions and interpreting to the audience, and as the film notes at the end, no one knows for certain what happened in the Algiers Motel and some of the scenes were pieced together and imagined by the filmmakers.
There is some nuance — in the National Guard officer who is horrified by the situation and the local security officer (John Boyega) who only wanted to ease tensions — but not nearly as much as Bigelow and Boal have previously achieved in “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker.”
Also very little insight is given to the victims’ lives outside of this event. Maybe that’s not the point, though. Maybe anger is all you’re supposed to feel when you step outside the theater. Maybe not feeling satisfied with “Detroit” is the point.
This was America, you think. This is still America. And the movies can’t offer a resolution that history hasn’t.
Rated: R for strong violence and pervasive language. Starring: John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith. Director: Kathryn Bigelow. Running time: 143 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.