There is no nice 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 in the Algiers Motel in late July 1967, 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 numbingly brutal, with little to no reprieve.
The stomach-churning horror begins immediately, as Bigelow speeds through the history of black people 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 when, 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 singing group called The Dramatics is about to go on stage at a crowded theater but are sent home due to the events outside. The men exit into what looks like a war zone. As they run through the streets, they assure every cop who isn’t already beating someone that they’re just on their way home.
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 (Anthony Mackie), and a provocateur, Carl (Jason Mitchell), who plays with a starter pistol that eventually catches the attention of the police. The officers storm the motel in a hunt for the sniper they presume is there.
The local police, led by a racist, Krauss (Will Poulter), kill Carl and then terrorize the guests with torture tactics until two more are dead and they call it a night.
“Detroit” is evocative of the time and place, but lacks the perspective and illumination that one might hope a 50-year-old event would warrant. Perhaps they wanted to leave conclusions to the audience. As the film notes at the end, no one knows what happened in the Algiers Motel, and some of the scenes were imagined.
Also, little insight is given into 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. 2:23. Fayette Mall, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.