A boiling cauldron of racial tension spills onto the floor in Kathryn Bigelow’s searing, brutal Detroit riots film

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“Detroit” is claustrophobic. It’s hot. It sweats. It’s an intense, gritty, explosive recreation of a grim moment in one of our city’s worst chapters, during the 1967 riots, and director Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t back down or bat an eye at the harsh reality of the incident.

That incident took place at the Algiers Motel, a sort of flop house on Woodward near Virginia Park (the site was demolished in the late 1970s), where several white cops rounded up a group of motel guests (mostly black) and interrogated them about shots in the area, making up the rules as they went along. (A disclaimer at the end of the film explains the film’s version of the events is pieced together through various accounts.)

The questioning, which was less about getting answers and more about exerting authority, went on for hours, and Bigelow keeps viewers locked inside the Algiers for what feels like a full overnight stay. A cracked window, an open door, anything would help to let the air out. But Bigelow keeps pressing and keeps viewers on high alert for an uncomfortable amount of time.

The buildup to the events at the Algiers is handled deftly by Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, Bigelow’s partner on both “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” The movie opens with an animated sequence that briefly and succinctly explains the history of racial segregation in our nation’s inner cities, and then cuts to the blind pig incident that kicked off the ’67 riots. The stage is set for the Algiers incident.

It’s after “Detroit” leaves the motel that it loses its steam. Trial scenes have a routine “Law & Order” feel to them and come across overly stage-y; a postscript that follows one of the Algiers survivors after the trial as he attempts to go on about his life is unearned.

While Bigelow sets up the riot and its beginnings so well, she doesn’t circle back. The film is so hyper-focused on the Algiers that it never returns to tell the story of what happened across the rest of the city, which makes it feel incomplete. (“Algiers” would be a much more apt — but far less marketable — title for the film.)

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'DETROIT' cast members, from left, Joseph David-Jones, Algee Smith and Leon Thomas III visit the Motown Museum and are joined in song by Amelda Smith of New York. Robin Buckson / The Detroit News

The performances from the young ensemble cast are strong across the board. Will Poulter is a revelation as the corrupt, crooked and racist cop who leads the makeshift interrogations; he’s been an oddball, outsider presence in comedies such as “We’re the Millers,” but here he’s searing and intense, with a pent up anger simmering beneath his surface that makes him a powder keg ready to blow.

The other standout is Saginaw native Algee Smith, who plays Larry “Cleveland” Reed, a singer for Detroit R&B group The Dramatics who winds up at the Algiers after a concert at the Fox Theatre is called off due to rioting. His is the most defined character in the large cast, and Smith (who portrayed Ralph Tresvant in BET’s “The New Edition Story”) is dynamic and charismatic in the role and has the makings of a star-to-be.

In a mostly male outfit, Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever are effective as a pair of motel patrons in town from Ohio, but their characters are only loosely explained, and we never know enough about who they were.

John Boyega (Finn from “Star Wars”) brings a steely calm to the proceedings as a security guard at a neighborhood grocery store who aims to keep the peace, and Anthony Mackie shows up as another motel guest with fire in his eyes.

Yet in a story about people, too many of the characters are flat and undefined. “Detroit” is most effective as a mood piece, a cauldron of racial tension spilling out onto the floor, with themes that still ring true today. Individual characters don’t leave a lasting impression, but on a gut level, “Detroit” lands.

It hurts, because it needs to. This is not a film about civic pride or the city’s comeback. We have to own this, and Bigelow highlights this ugly moment on its 50th anniversary. Yes, the city has moved on, but this incident still stings, and “Detroit” reopens wounds that fester.

Three men died that night at the hands of the police. The officers were put on trial and were found not guilty. The parallels between then and now give “Detroit” a poignancy beyond its historical context. The same things are still happening today, 50 years later, with alarming frequency. How far have we really come? Question asked, question answered.

The world premiere for “Detroit” is at Detroit’s Fox Theatre on Tuesday, ahead of its limited opening Friday; it opens everywhere Aug. 4.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

Twitter: @grahamorama

More reports:Comprehensive coverage of the 50th anniversary of the conflict in Detroit.

‘Detroit’

GRADE: B

Rated R: strong violence and pervasive language

Running time: 126 minutes

Detroit (R)

A boiling cauldron of racial tension spills onto the floor in Kathryn Bigelow’s searing, claustrophobic film about the incident at the Algiers motel, but its loosely defined characters leave you wanting more. (126 minutes) GRADE: B

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