Movie Review: Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow's vintage violence.


Annapurna Pictures

In her stark yet teeming new movie Detroit, director Kathryn Bigelow accomplishes something rare. Zooming in on a cataclysmic race riot that took place in the Motor City in July of 1967, Bigelow offers for white viewers an intimate sense of what it was like for black citizens to live in a city where they were routinely harassed and beaten down and made to feel like hated interlopers in their own land—and where nothing was ever done about these things. Parallels with present-day spasms of unpunished police criminality are something Bigelow lets us discern for ourselves, which is also rare—there's little condescending moral guidance being dispensed here.

The movie is a bold project by a major director, and it offers much to applaud—mainly the craft with which it's been made. But the picture is also weakened by substantial flaws, more about which in a moment.

Working from a script by Mark Boal, with whom she also collaborated on The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow starts off at the riot's ground zero: an unlicensed black after-hours club which is being rudely cleared by police. The celebrants inside the club are dragged out like recalcitrant farm animals to be loaded into paddy wagons. A crowd of local black residents gathers, their outrage banked at first – they've seen this sort of thing many times before – but then growing. A bottle is thrown, a shop window is smashed, looters go to work, and before long the state National Guard arrives, 1100 strong.

The violence mounts. We see buildings and cars in flames (sometimes in period photos and footage), and police clubbing black men in the streets. We see a cop named Krauss (Will Poulter) shooting a fleeing rioter in the back, and later, at the police station, being informed that murder charges will be filed against him because the man he shot has died. Krauss, a complete toad, mutters about what he sees as the injustice of this, but then – presumably because able bodies are in short supply amid the night's chaos—he's sent right back out into the fray.

One of the movie's problems is its lack of a central character, which is frustrating, because there are. some fine actors on hand. John Boyega plays a black rent-a-cop named Dismukes, an earnest young man who tries to relate to people on both sides of the racial divide, with varying degrees of success. We do see quite a bit of Dismukes, intermittently, but he's mostly an observer.

A more complex and compelling character is Larry (Algee Smith), a member of a (real-life) vocal group called the Dramatics, whose big breakthrough appearance at the Fox Theatre—following Martha and the Vandellas—is suddenly canceled when word of the rioting outside gets around. There's a beautiful moment after the audience evacuates the theatre when Larry walks out onstage and quietly launches into an a cappella rendition of the song he'd been slated to sing with his group—giving us a sense of how much more is being lost in this riot than just property.

We follow Larry and his buddy Fred (Jacob Lattimore) to the Algiers Motel, where they take shelter for the rest of the night. They make the acquaintance of two vaguely written young white women (are they party girls? prostitutes?) played by Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever, and of a recently returned Vietnam veteran named Greene, played by Anthony Mackie. Murray and Dever get a few moments to inject some personality into the proceedings, but Mackie is underutilized to the point of being wasted.

In any case, the repellent Krauss soon arrives at the head of a detachment of police searching for a sniper they think was shooting from inside the motel—and they're not going to leave until they find him. (In the real Algiers Motel incident, no sniper was ever found.) Krauss and two of his cop pals—a greasy creep named Flynn (Ben O'Toole) and a dim lunk named Demens (Jack Reynor)—line up all the black men and the two white women in a hallway and proceed to harangue and abuse them. This pigheaded quest for the nonexistent gun goes on for a harrowingly long time. Terrible things continue to happen, then lethal things.

Bigelow and her cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, put us right in the middle of the story's roiling action, both out in the streets and inside the cramped motel rooms and corridors. (The whole movie seems to have been shot hand-held, although it's definitely not a shaky-cam exercise.) But the latter part of the movie is dominated by Poulter's Krauss, who is unappealing in just about every way. There's also a plot strand involving a starter pistol that was unclear to me, and occasional gobbets of over-cooked dialogue. ("In a time of hate, love becomes more important.") There are also a few interludes—like one in a neighborhood church—that would seem ripe for trimming in a movie that runs nearly two and a half hours.

The picture's central defect, however, is the skepticism it stirs in us about the events we're watching. The true story of the Algiers Motel incident is hazed by time and uncertainty, and at the end of the film we're informed that some of what we've seen has been reconstructed. So while some people's real names are used, the three bad-apple cops, who were infamously acquitted of all charges against them in court, and who may still be around, are allowed the safe harbor of pseudonyms.

Still, there are truths in this movie that ring out across the years. When Krauss realizes he'd better release one of his battered detainees, he advises the man not to tell anyone what's been done to him: "I got your name and I know who you are," he says. The man fixes him with a dead-eyed glare and says, "I ain't got your name, and I don't know nothin' about you."

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  1. Yeah… I’m not watching this.

  2. Another fantasy movie. Everybody knows that all racists live in the South.

    1. Maybe not. Mencken’s mag published “The Ku-Kluxer” in 1924, critical of the tentacles the Invisible Empire had insinuated northward through the good offices of the Prohibitionist movement. That was the year of the Klanbake and the platform battle to keep such things Invisible (and, like today’s Dems, to preserve Prohibition and dry killers). By the following year the Klan had expanded into the Republican party and soon campaigned against Al Smith.

    2. Everybody knows that all racists live in the South.


      This guy wasn’t lying either.

    3. One race riot is a tragedy. Centuries of systematic slavery, torture, and murder is a statistic?

      1. Cute, but that city never recovered from that “one race riot”.

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  4. It looks interesting, but the tragedy of how far Detroit has fallen BECAUSE of the riots makes it a tough one to want to see.

    1. Detroit had been on a downturn for at least a decade prior to the riots. The auto industry was expanding elsewhere and the middle class began to move to newer & cheaper homes in the suburbs. The Cavanagh administration signed the death warrant by instituting a city tax making moving out the best financial option for most of the middle class. Detroit became and remains one of the most heavily taxed cities (Income tax, sales tax, high property tax rates and utilities taxes). If anything the riots accelerated the exodus but the reality is if the 12th Street Riots never happened, Detroit would still be similar to what it is today. It make have reached this point a few years slower but it was already in the cards.

      The riots have become a scapegoat for the politicians to hide behind.

      If anyone would like to learn about the riots and disastrous decade prior I’d highly recommend Violence in the Model City by Sidney Fine.

      1. If there were no riots, there would likely be no 20 year reign of Coleman Young, who did everything in his power to exacerbate racial tensions and give the finger to businesses in the suburbs.

        I also wonder if a slower glidepath may have provided pols and opportunity to attract people back into the city and turn the ship around a bit before it was too late.

  5. [white director] Bigelow offers for white viewers an intimate sense of what it was like for black citizens to live in a city where they were routinely harassed

    Cultural appropriation, yo

  6. Would it be too much of a spoiler to tell us how many pets Detroit’s Finest shoot during the flick?

  7. Compare to Steve Sailer’s review of the same movie:…..z4oTg24NT3

    Loder basically repeats the progressive narrative.

    1. Won’t anyone hear the white people’s side of anything!

      1. Racist.

      2. Soooo, you’re suggesting whites don’t have a say?


        Soooo Tony.

  8. I was 9 and my family’s apartment was about 5 blocks away from Grand River avenue where a lot of the rioting took place. During the curfew my Dad and I sat on the front steps and we could see the reflection of the fires in the smoke and clouds. The second or third night, I looked out our dining room window and saw a sea of police lights on two sides of the building, because someone claimed a sniper was on the roof of our building. No sniper was found, but suddenly seeing that many police cars all in one place, with no sirens beforehand, was disquieting, even for a kid who was taught to respect the police.

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  12. The movie offers much to applaud, mainly the craft with which it’s been made.
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