Pulling the audience into the Algiers Motel, where much of the action takes place, director Kathryn Bigelow gives a sense of the fear and brutality that came to define the event.
Swiftly explaining the racial unrest in Detroit in the late 1960s, Bigelow uses clips and quick vignettes to lead into the Algiers incident. A musician and his friend get invited to a party. There, a bit of strutting leads to gunplay with what appears to be a starter pistol. That alerts authorities who think the black men are shooting at them to swarm the motel. In minutes, they’re in the building, demanding answers about the shooter.
No one talks and a particularly sadistic cop (played with real menace by Will Poulter) starts roughing up people. He threatens to kill them, too. Pulling individuals into a room, he shoots in order to scare those outside. The cop, however, is searching for something that isn’t there. Even worse? Earlier in the day he was reprimanded for shooting another black man.
While Bigelow doesn’t give all of the characters as much background as the musician (superbly played by Algee Smith) or a security guard (John Boyega) who witnesses the intimidation, she does make the personalities resonate. Two white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) are shocked at the authorities’ behavior. But they’re also surprised at the racism that suggests they’re prostitutes working for one of the black men in the room.
Mark Boal’s screenplay could best be considered a dramatization. Smith’s character exists (we get an update in the closing credits) but Poulter’s is an amalgamation.
Watching Smith long for a shot at a Detroit theater, he’s about to go on (with his group, the Dramatics) when trouble breaks out and the audience is dismissed.
That leads to the motel and the night of terror.
While Bigelow doesn’t condense much of anything in the motel, she does collapse time in the aftermath. A trial seems truncated, particularly when there’s so much viewers want to know. John Krasinski slips in as an attorney, but it’s never really clear what the case is or who’s responsible. When it focuses on those in the belly of the beast, “Detroit” is much more intriguing.
As a slice of history, though, “Detroit” can’t be faulted. We understand the feelings that colored the night; we can see just how tentative the peace that now exists is.
Boyega’s character raises plenty of questions, largely because he was in a position to set some records straight. While others may not have listened, he was a player in both worlds. When we see what happens, he’s likely one of “Detroit’s” missed opportunities.
Clocking in at more than two and a half hours, the film doesn’t seem long enough. There’s more here to be told. This may just be the start of the conversation.
Photo Credit: Patch