Over the past 15 years, Kathryn Bigelow has directed precisely two feature films. 2008’s The Hurt Locker won the Oscar for Best Picture (along with five other Academy Awards), and 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for five and won one (in arguably the most crowded Oscars field in years).
She may not be the most prolific of directors, but when she does decide to get to work, she’s among the best there is.
Her latest is Detroit, which chronicles the city’s July 1967 riot and more specifically the bloody aftermath at the Algiers Motel. And though it doesn’t rise to the level of either of the aforementioned films, it’s still a raw, riveting, and frankly horrific portrait of racism and terror. Which, of course, makes it especially timely.
The focus of the film is Larry Reed (Algee Smith), an up and coming Motown singer with his group The Dramatics. Two nights after a city-wide riot breaks out, Reed and friend Fred Temple have stopped off at the Algiers when hours later the police raid it, trying to track down a sniper believed to be inside. The Detroit Police, State Police, and National Guard all convened on the scene, but it was officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) who took command. A composite character, he is depicted as the ringleader—a racist, violent cop who doesn’t need an excuse to execute whomever he sees fit.
After the raid, Krauss and two fellow officers line up several black men and two white women in the hallway and start intimidating and then terrifying each of them, including Reed and Temple. Condensed into an hour-long segment that makes up the focus of the movie, the standoff is presented as a horrifying night of bigotry, intolerance, and injustice that left three young black men dead.
Screenwriter Mark Boal, who also wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, has been accused of not only exploiting the victims but turning the events into fodder for an outright horror film. The unfortunate truth is that what is presented on screen, by most accounts, is a largely accurate portrayal of the tragedy. Not only did Boal interview several real-life counterparts of the characters portrayed in the film, but Juli Hysell—one of the women held by police—was on the movie’s set every day throughout production. And security guard Melvin Dismukes, played by John Boyega, avers the film is 99.5% accurate.
Bigelow’s excellent use of hand-held cameras and in-your-face cinematography transport the audience directly into the heart of the events, giving the film an immediacy and intimacy that ramps up the suspense even more. Detroit would be terrifying enough if it was fictional, but the fact that it was a real moment in American history makes it even scarier, and both Boal and Bigelow understand that, wisely letting the moments unfold as they happened.
It’s only when the depiction of the Algiers events concludes and the movie progresses into aftermath-phase, which includes the trial of the police officers and an odd, head-scratcher of a cameo by John Krasinski, that Detroit loses some steam. Boal might have been better served to conclude his screenplay at the end of the incident itself instead of letting the story peter out, but even that can’t erase the impact the happenings of that July night in 1967 has on the audience.
Detroit is a powerful re-telling of a lesser-known—but not less important—dark chapter of American history, and Bigelow gives it the respect and attention it deserves. It’s a story that needs to be told and understood and held up for all to see.