A reign of white police terror over a group of unarmed blacks forms the basis of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” which recounts the events of July 25, 1967, when Detroit cops descended on the seedy Algiers Motel, rounded up the occupants and questioned them about a possible sniper in the building. After a series of beatings and a false-execution game played in the next room, three unarmed black men lay dead from gunshots. The policemen in charge were tried for murder but acquitted by an all-white jury.
Is that a spoiler? Maybe, but it’s also the entire point of “Detroit.”
Bigelow’s latest headline-based thriller, written by Mark Boal – following their “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” – is a borderline virtual-reality experience that uses sweaty close-ups and jittery camerawork to put us in with the victims in the Algiers Motel. (Production designer Jeremy Hindle and costume designer Francine-Jamison Tanchuck also deserve credit for re-creating 1967 in palpable detail.) Our avatars are the real-life figures of Larry Reed (Algee Smith), an aspiring Motown singer caught up in the horror, and a coolheaded security guard named Dismukes (John Boyega). The film’s primary villain is Detroit cop Philip Krauss (an incendiary Will Poulter, playing a composite character), who understands that his uniform and skin color give him almost unlimited power.
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“Detroit” is a harrowing re-enactment of terror and tragedy, and its very existence reminds us that stories of police brutality haven’t changed much – they still often end the same way. That said, “Detroit” doesn’t offer a new angle on this depressing cycle. (The opening animated sequence about African-American history, based on the paintings of Jacob Lawrence, feels a bit like a dated educational filmstrip.)
By contrast, Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” (2013) helped humanize the real police shooting victim Oscar Grant, while “Straight Outta Compton” looked at the issue through the vivid lens of rap music and popular culture. Opting for a blunt, bruising approach, “Detroit” leaves us feeling like victims, too: shattered, angry and helpless.
starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Jack Reynor, Kaitlyn Dever and Ben O’Toole. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Rated R for violence, nudity and language. Running time: 2:23