The riots that exploded in Detroit in July 1967 left 43 people dead, thousands injured and incarcerated, and with large chunks of the city reduced to smouldering ruins. When approaching events this vast and complex, which story do you choose to tell? Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal begin their new film Detroit by taking a macro view. The film opens with a montage based on Jacob Lawrence's Migration series of paintings, explaining the movement of black people from the south to the north in search of work, and how racial tensions subsequently developed in cities such as this.
It's a surprisingly lyrical opening for a film distinguished by the blunt force of its violence and for its escalating tension, which is achieved through the sharp editing of William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, and Barry Ackroyd's nervy, responsive cinematography; but Bigelow isn't completely averse to finding grace notes amid the violence. When Larry Reed (Algee Smith), the lead singer of up-and-coming R&B group The Dramatics, learns that the concert they were set to perform in has been cancelled on police advice, just before they go on stage, he walks out onto the stage anyway. Picking up the microphone, he sings a solo number, his voice echoing around the now-empty auditorium, and then the camera catches the mixture of emotions on his face as he imagines doing that in front of an audience that is now running home through the battle-scarred streets. He savours the moment, and so should we, because such tender interludes are in short supply as the film progresses.
Bigelow does a good job of showing us how the riot was sparked by a police raid on an unlicensed club while simultaneously introducing us to the key players. As Larry and his bandmates run to the sanctuary of the Algiers Motel, we meet Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a quiet, conscientious security guard who we see drinking coffee with the National Guard when shots are heard from the direction from Algiers. Among the first responders to the scene are three policemen – Krauss (Will Poulter), Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole) – who had been introduced earlier in the film through Kraus shooting a fleeing looter in the back, the groceries under his arms spilling onto the street as he ran for his life. That man ended up dying a couple of blocks away under a car. Krauss was informed that he'd face a murder charge, and then he walked out of the police station and headed for the Algiers.
Although the title Detroit suggests an overview of the riots that engulfed the city, the filmmakers are primarily interested in what happened at the Algiers. For the whole middle section of the film we rarely venture outside this building. The police and the National Guard move in, pull the residents out into the hallway (five black men and two young white women who had been partying with them) and subject them to a long night of brutal physical and psychological abuse aimed at revealing the whereabouts of a sniper rifle that we already know doesn't exist. Led by Krauss, the police strike the men with their fists, boots and the butts of their rifles, baiting them into a response – at one point, Flynn offers one of them his knife, encouraging him to defend himself. The torture escalates until they begin taking individuals into separate rooms and firing shots to make the others believe that they are going to execute suspects in cold blood if one of them doesn't give up the information they want.
It's hard to fault Bigelow's staging of this sequence. She gets in tight to the characters, allowing us to feel their overwhelming fear and confusion, making us see the impact of every blow administered by the leering cops. The sequence is claustrophobic, repulsive and agonising; it must last for something like an hour of screen time but it feels twice that. Her depiction is entirely convincing but ultimately that's all it feels like – a depiction. There's little to be gleaned from watching this aside from how appalling it all is, and Boal's screenplay fails to give us any insight into the characters' actions or, in some cases, their inaction. The figures who seemed to be set up as the ostensible leads are only given a single note to play. Krauss is very much the villain of the piece, and while Poulter relishes his scene-stealing opportunity, his work has little shading (I was much more intrigued by the casual, understated sadism of O'Toole's Flynn), while Boyega can't do much with such a passive character.
We see Boyega two more times after the motel ordeal is finally over; once when Dismukis is brought in and interrogated as a suspect, and later at the trial when the officers are cleared of all charges. We are told in the closing text that he faced death threats following his involvement in the Algiers incident, but the trial eats up so much of the film's muddled final third he, like many of the characters, feels thrown away. The only one whose story we continue to follow is Larry Reed, who finds he can no longer make music for white audiences to enjoy and gravitates towards the church, where he can sing with his own people. It's the closest thing the film has to a satisfying character arc, but it doesn't feel like enough. Bigelow and Boal have chosen to focus on exploring one incident in excruciatingly close detail, but in doing so it feels like they have lost sight of the bigger picture.