Detroit is a movie about racism in America for white people. It mostly does not center black characters except as victims. Its villain — a murderously racist white cop — is also its protagonist. A movie about racism in America for white people isn’t the most terrible idea ever: Detroit wants to show us white people how endless systemic injustice weighs on black people, psychologically as well as physically, because of entrenched racism, not only of the actively vicious kind but also of the “I’m not getting involved, I’m just minding my own business” kind. (Black people don’t need to have this explained to them: they live it.) The film is very sympathetic to its black characters, though it engages the empathy of the audience mostly through physical violence done to them. Still: there are no white saviors here, nor any kindly white people whose personal journeys are furthered by coming to a new appreciation of racism, and that’s a baby step of cinematic progress. A movie about racism in America for white people is maybe the best thing two white American storytellers — director Kathryn Bigelow, reteaming with her Zero Dark Thirty and Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal — should attempt.
But a movie like Detroit can only be a not-terrible thing as long as we start getting a lot more movies from black filmmakers telling their stories about racism from their perspectives. We cannot pretend that Detroit is the final cinematic word that can be said about the real-life event it depicts: the week-long riot, a near rebellion, in July 1967 in the Motor City that resulted in dozens of deaths, more than 1,000 injuries, and more than 7,000 arrests (although virtually no prosecutions). Detroit shouldn’t even be taken as the final cinematic word on the one narrow slice of horror it focuses on: the incident at the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25–6 in which 10 young black men (and two young white women) were psychologically and physically abused, and several killed, by white police officers. But it’s a start. Only a start.
The film is slow to get to what it is going to be about. The unrest began days before the Algiers Motel, when police raided an unlicensed social club and drinking establishment that catered to black people, and that’s where the film opens. Bigelow and Boal are, again, sympathetic to the people being raided: they’re not causing any trouble, just having a respectable good time; one is a soldier just back from Vietnam, Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie: Captain America: Civil War, Triple 9), a man who has put his life on the line for a nation that treats him like garbage. It’s impossible not to be enraged by this. But the film could have gone a step further and somehow let us know all the layers of injustice and harassment already at work here, such as, for instance, that a black person simply could not get a liquor license in Detroit in 1967, so it’s not like this is a matter of malicious criminality. It’s just people doing what they had to do to have the same sort of community white folks could have without any hassle.
Anyway, the raid sparks some bottle- and rock-throwing at the police by the black onlookers, and everything explodes from there. Detroit gives a good impression of the city as a pile of tinder and every small act of oppression a spark: eventually, conflagration was inevitable. Really, someone could make a 20-hour miniseries about the Detroit riots — HBO, get on that — so perhaps it was a smart idea for Bigelow and Boal to wend their way toward the Algiers Motel a few nights later, where what happened was a microcosm for that tinder and that conflagration. In a city that feels like a war zone — damn near an apocalyptic one, with fires burning uncontrolled everywhere and armed soldiers patrolling, just total civic breakdown — the Algiers is an unexpected little oasis of normality, with a lot of friendly people, mostly black, just relaxing and hanging out and partying. Larry Reed (Algee Smith: Earth to Echo), a singer with a cool Motown group called The Dramatics, ends up here with his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore: Collateral Beauty, The Maze Runner) as they try to find a safe haven amidst the violence; there they meet Juli Hysell (Hannah Murray: Game of Thrones, Dark Shadows) and Karen Malloy (Kaitlyn Dever: Men, Women & Children, Laggies), a couple of suburban white girls who like black boys, and some of their friends, including Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell: Kong: Skull Island, Straight Outta Compton). Mackie’s Greene, the vet from the club raid, is here too.
Things go very bad when a prank with a starter pistol draws nearby cops and National Guardsmen, who are already on edge after days of rioting. Krauss*, a young city cop, takes it upon himself to lead an interrogation of everyone in the motel to find what he believes is a real gun, as well as who seemingly fired it at them. We have seen him behaving, in the earlier days of the riot, like a violent racist dirtbag, and he doubles down on this now. Will Poulter (The Revenant, Plastic) is utterly horrifying as Krauss revels in his power over others, particularly over people he considers inferior to his own proud self bloated by his authority; it gets very difficult to watch his Krauss torturing his prisoners, playing “games” in which he threatens to kill them if they don’t tell him what he wants to know. This should be difficult to watch, and if Krauss is so outrageously malevolent that he’s almost a caricature, Poulter’s performance is so rooted in straight-up bigoted rage that he remains completely plausible. His sidekicks — fellow cops Flynn (Ben O’Toole: The Water Diviner), sweaty and eager to hurt people, and Demens (Jack Reynor: Free Fire, A Royal Night Out), an earnest lackey who seems to want nothing else but to please Krauss — also keep him grounded in authenticity. These are very bad men who are all too real. (Not much better are the Guardsmen who refuse to get involved, who turn a blind eye even when they know that what is happening is an atrocity.)
Perhaps the best, smartest aspect of Detroit is how it portrays the absolute impossibility of any black person successfully navigating the racist institutions and deep-rooted attitudes that pervade American society. Before everything goes to hell at the Algiers, Carl and a friend of his engage in a bit of playacting to demonstrate to the white women how a black man’s encounter with a police officer (the vast majority of whom were white in Detroit in 1967) would inevitably go: no amount of polite respect or deferring to authority would be enough. It’s even more insidious — and heartbreaking — in the character of Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Half of a Yellow Sun), a black security guard at a store nearby to the Algiers who had ingratiated himself with the white Guardsmen out of sheer self-protection: he doesn’t want to get shot because of the color of his skin. He follows them to the Algiers, and when he sees — and instantly understands — what is happening, he remains on the scene, ostensibly on the “side” of the cops and Guardsmen yet, we can see, clearly intending to try to diffuse the situation as much as he can with whatever bit of authority he can muster. His security-guard’s uniform isn’t much in the grand scheme, nor is his status as a “good negro,” but he does what he can. But taking up a position with the oppressor rarely works out well for the oppressed. (Boyega is excellent here. At one point I suddenly saw a physical resemblance, something in his eyes, that reminded me of Denzel Washington, which I’d never noticed in his previous screen outings, and then I realized it was because Boyega was bringing an even more robust potency his character than he has before, something akin to Washington’s gravitas. Boyega, already a really good actor, is going to be a truly great one someday soon.)
As a thriller, Detroit is tense and thoroughly gripping. As a cultural exploration, it is completely infuriating. Everything we see here looks and sounds almost exactly like everything we’ve been seeing happening in America in recent years: the utter disdain for black bodies, black perspectives, and black lives. The Detroit riots were 50 years ago — half a century! — and really, nothing has changed in all that time? Of course, black people already knew this. It’s time — long past time — for white people to truly begin to understand this. Detroit is only a small piece of the beginning of such an understanding. But it’s a start. It’s a start.
*The names of the cops have been fictionalized and the cop characters are composites, because there is no irrefutable account of what happened at the Algiers — this is based on survivors’ stories, and no one has the complete tale — and also because the real cops were never convicted of any crime, thanks to — you guessed it — all-white juries. See The Hollywood Reporter for a detailed look at the legal niceties of this matter. All the other characters bear the names of the real people involved.