Near the beginning and the end of “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s tense, excruciating and entirely necessary new film, a young Motown performer named Larry Reed (beautifully played by Algee Smith) raises his head and croons to the heavens with heart-swelling abandon. First he sings of love on an enormous stage; later he sings of peace in a small church. Both times his voice lifts you to the rafters, offering a rare intimation of grace in a movie of overwhelming human ugliness, set in a world where love and peace can feel as distant as justice.
That world, as we hardly need reminding, is very much our own. With a panoramic docudrama sweep that gives way to the disquieting intimacy of a horror-thriller, “Detroit” returns us to the summer of 1967, when racial tensions engulfed the Motor City and claimed 43 lives over five days of violent unrest. In thrusting the viewer directly into a war zone, the film recalls Bigelow’s prior collaborations with the screenwriter Mark Boal, “The Hurt Locker” (2009) and “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), still the two finest dramas yet made about America’s post-9/11 military and intelligence operations in the Middle East.
If “Detroit” feels even harder to watch in its jagged, you-are-there ferocity, it may be because its particular war zone, although 50 years removed from the present, feels so much closer to home. It may also be because Bigelow and Boal, whose behind-the-headlines thrillers have been marked by a certain ideological distance, have cast aside any pretense to neutrality here. The two drew a few allegations of apoliticism on “The Hurt Locker” and a lot of wrongheaded criticism over their depiction of government torture in “Zero Dark Thirty,” but with “Detroit” they have made a picture whose political resonance in the Black Lives Matter era is fierce and unambiguous.
It could scarcely be anything else, given the specific story it’s telling. Although its title suggests an all-encompassing vision, “Detroit” is less interested in capturing the riot’s day-by-day chaos than in revisiting one of its darkest chapters — a furious confrontation between law enforcement and unarmed civilians that, on the night of July 25-26, turned a local establishment called the Algiers Motel into a charnel house.
Before the night was over, three unarmed black teenagers — Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard and Fred Temple — were shot to death by police, in a haze of terror and confusion that John Hersey sought to clarify in his exhaustively researched 1968 book, “The Algiers Motel Incident.” While “Detroit” acknowledges a measure of artistic license in dramatizing the events in question, Boal conducted his own interviews with dozens of surviving participants, then shaped them into a blunt, ungainly but intensely compelling narrative that does what it can to ease us into the inferno.
Bigelow sets the scene on the ground with crackling immediacy, ricocheting between quick bursts of newsreel footage and her own meticulous period re-creation of Detroit’s heavily segregated black communities. We see the spark igniting on July 23, 1967, when cops raid a “blind pig,” or illegal after-hours bar, and drive its black patrons out into the street, drawing an angry crowd and setting the first waves of violence in motion.
Even as she’s establishing context — something she accomplishes with the help of an animated prologue detailing the social and economic disparities that kept black urban Americans in a perpetual state of struggle — Bigelow has an almost preternatural respect for the audience’s intelligence. She doesn’t belabor the rioters’ tactics or their rationale, and she largely allows the filmmaking to speak for itself. The eerie images of smoldering buildings, smashed storefronts, closed-off streets and angry, teeming throngs are a visually eloquent reminder that a riot, in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “is the language of the unheard.”
The chaos escalates and the National Guard is called in, but the film is drawn to the unceasing hum of human activity on the margins, among black non-participants who find themselves caught up in the riot’s wake. Among them are Larry and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore), who are making their way home after a canceled musical gig and wind up chilling at the Algiers, a seedy joint known for what Hersey called its “pleasure-loving black clientele.”
Larry and Fred flirt with two white Ohio girls, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), and exchange macho glares with other young black men in the vicinity, including Carl (a volatile Jason Mitchell) and his friend Aubrey (Nathan Davis Jr.). These young people are partying at the edge of an apocalypse, and it can’t last. Somewhere in the mix is a starter pistol, a not-so-harmless toy that gets foolishly fired into the streets outside the motel, drawing city cops, state police officers and National Guardsmen to the scene.
What follows is a hideous sequence of events that both curdles and boils the blood, and I mean it as a compliment when I say that it seems to last an eternity. Reteaming with her “Hurt Locker” cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, whose agitated handheld closeups dovetail with William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon’s propulsive editing, Bigelow plays out this nightmare with an unrelieved, claustrophobic intensity. The cops force the black men and white women to line up against the wall. They beat them, interrogate them about a weapon that doesn’t exist, and threaten to kill them if they remain silent — a grim bluff that inevitably, fatally backfires.
The young Detroit cop in charge, drawn from a real-life figure but renamed Krauss, is played by Will Poulter with a vicious, single-minded intensity that stops just short of caricature. Krauss is a sadist through and through, someone for whom the riot has become less a crisis than an opportunity, an excuse to treat every black person as guilty until proven innocent. The film takes pains to point out that Krauss and his even less evolved fellow cops (Ben O’Toole and Jack Reynor) are hardly representative of their department as a whole. But it’s also clear-eyed enough to understand how little this matters in a system predicated on the unthinking, top-to-bottom devaluation of black life.
That system proves cruelest of all for would-be-peacemakers like Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard who tries to defuse the situation on both sides and merely winds up being abused and exploited in turn. Bigelow has a genius for capturing human details on the fly: The anxious gravity we see in Melvin’s face is matched by the wide-eyed panic we see in Julie’s, and also by the nothing-to-prove decency of a Vietnam vet (Anthony Mackie) staying at the motel, his presumed sexual interest in white women inflaming the worst of the cops’ racist pathologies.
Is this grueling, bruising, hard-to-watch movie something anyone needs to sit through? It’s a question that reveals less about the film’s ostensible agenda, I think, than it does about the inquirer’s default complacency. Since the invention of the camera, it has taken a particularly willful ignorance to live in complete freedom from images of black suffering and revolt in the face of unchecked police authority. What makes “Detroit” vital is not that its images are new or revelatory, but rather that Bigelow and Boal have succeeded, with enviable coherence and tremendous urgency, in clarifying those images into art.
It’s impossible not to feel a powerful sense of relief as the third act arrives and the Algiers Motel nightmare comes to an end — except, of course, that it doesn’t. You may well be frustrated by the movie’s courtroom-drama denouement, as much for its structural bagginess as for the way it shows history continuing its endless pattern of compounding injustice with injustice. The tension of “Detroit” may dissipate in these final moments, but its boundless anger and compassion remain.
Rating: R, for strong violence and pervasive language
Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes
Playing: Regal L.A. Live Stadium 14, Los Angeles; Landmark, West Lost Angeles; and ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood