Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled a street name at the intersection where the riots depicted in “Detroit” began. This version has been updated.
In “Detroit,” director Kathryn Bigelow concentrates and refracts the 1967 riots in that eponymous city through the lens of one of its most notorious yet largely forgotten incidents, when a group of white police officers tortured and murdered a group of teenagers at the Algiers Motel, then covered it up. Of a piece with Bigelow’s Oscar-winning 2008 Iraq drama “The Hurt Locker” and 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” the tense, harrowingly intimate “Detroit” rounds out a trilogy of fact-based, fog-of-war interpretive histories. Even though it’s based on an episode that occurred half a century ago, it feels like her timeliest movie yet.
As titles go, “The Battle of Algiers” was already taken, and probably too on the nose. But comparisons to Gillo Pontecorvo’s seminal 1966 political thriller are inevitable as “Detroit’s” tightly coiled situational drama takes shape. After a prologue describing the mass migration of Southern blacks to Northern urban centers — written by Henry Louis Gates and illustrated by animated images taken from painter Jacob Lawrence’s “Great Migration” cycle — the film takes viewers into the after-hours club at 12th and Clairmount where, in the early hours of Sunday, July 23, the Detroit police raided a party being thrown for a soldier returning from Vietnam.
As the police were leading their charges out of the building, a crowd gathered and a disturbance ensued that would lead to five days of fires, looting, mass arrests, savage police brutality and more than 40 deaths, including that of a 4-year-old girl who was mistaken for a sniper by an officer who shot her through a window. That moment is captured with sudden, heart-seizing clarity in “Detroit,” which plunges the audience into the chaos, paranoia and pent-up rage that engulfs the city’s African American community, even as a young congressman named John Conyers Jr. (Laz Alonso) assures his constituents that “change is coming.”
But just when the viewer thinks that “Detroit” will be a “tick-tock” narrative of the mayhem and sociopolitical upheaval that defined the nearly week-long rebellion, Bigelow makes a radical shift, following a singer named Larry Reed (Algee Smith) as he and his group the Dramatics prepare for a career-making set at Detroit’s legendary Fox Theater. When the show is canceled because of security issues outside, Larry and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) take refuge at the Algiers, where the vibe promises to be far mellower, more welcoming and safe.
It’s at this point that “Detroit,” which was written by Bigelow’s frequent collaborator Mark Boal, goes from being a bluntly effective you-are-there exercise to something far more daring, sophisticated and unforgettably disturbing. Rather than treat the Algiers as yet one more data point within a timeline that eventually included the arrival of the National Guard and, finally, the U.S. Army, Bigelow drills down into one of American history’s most egregious cases of abuse of police power, bringing it to life with visceral detail and slowed-down meticulousness. The broad, historical contours are these: In an act of teenage bravado, a young man named Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) fired a starter pistol out the window of the motel; police arrived on the scene, almost certainly killed Cooper (although accounts varied) and, in an effort to find the gun, proceeded to physically and verbally terrorize a group of young black men and two white girls, an ordeal that resulted in two more deaths.
It’s in this bizarre, sadistic sequence that the context for the violence and rage of the Detroit riots comes wrenchingly into focus, as decades of intimidation and impunity on the part of the mostly white Detroit police department take the form of racist animus, cruelty and brazen murder. Led by a particularly noxious fictionalized character named Krauss (Will Poulter, who hasn’t quite mastered Detroit’s distinctive accent), the cops are alternately frightened and arrogant as the situation spirals into a waking nightmare. Observing it all with mute alarm is a young private security guard named Melvin Dismukes, portrayed here by John Boyega with wary but searing self-control reminiscent of a young Sidney Poitier.
Like many of Poitier’s characters, Dismukes is an avatar of respectability politics, a man so eager to reassure his white colleagues that he takes a pot of coffee to them earlier as a way to send signals that he’s on their side. It’s these gestures that ground “Detroit” and give it life, even as its horrors become increasingly grotesque. (The movie’s weakest link is its dialogue, which includes too much on-the-nose exposition about racism and Detroit’s history of oppression.) Working with “Hurt Locker” cameraman Barry Ackroyd, Bigelow once again aspires for viewers to occupy the same psychic and physical space as her characters, who spend most of the movie lined up with their hands against a motel wall, not knowing from one moment to the next whether they’ll live or die.
When the film’s third act turns to the story’s appalling legal aftermath, the questions that have long dogged the 1967 riots — Why did black people burn down their own houses? Why did they loot their own shops? — seem unforgivably naive. “Detroit” flips the usual questions to get at the corrupt heart of white obliviousness: Why has this history been erased for so long? And why does it ring so grievously true today?
Alternately stretching out and compressing the narrative, Bigelow and her creative team, including editor William Goldenberg, have combined the most immersive aspects of “The Hurt Locker” with the linear procedural aspects of “Zero Dark Thirty” to create a new cinematic language: a form of deconstructed, almost hallucinatory realism whose unpredictable shape and rhythms are altogether appropriate for the almost incomprehensible moment it seeks to capture. (Documentary footage from the era is seamlessly knitted into the dramatizations, which were mostly filmed in Boston.)
“Detroit” is an audacious, nervy work of art, but it also commemorates history, memorializes the dead and invites reflection on the part of the living. In scale, scope and the space it offers for a long-awaited moral reckoning, it’s nothing less than monumental.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong violence and pervasive obscenity. 142 minutes.