At their best, liberal film dramas that tackle the monumental issue of race in America have offered humanity and insight. It’s safe to say, though, that when Hollywood gives us a portrait of racial tragedy and injustice, it’s probably a tale of hope and uplift as well, a parable of moral darkness leading nobly into the light. But when you watch “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s sweeping, scalding drama about the Detroit riots that took place 50 years ago, in July 1967, you’re entering a zone where the usual feel-good pieties don’t apply. For this is no comforting drama of social protest. It’s closer to a hair-trigger historical nightmare, one you can’t tear yourself away from. Bigelow, working from a script by her regular collaborator Mark Boal (it’s their first film since “Zero Dark Thirty”), has created a turbulent, live-wire panorama of race in America that feels like it’s all unfolding in the moment, and that’s its power. We’re not watching tidy, well-meaning lessons — we’re watching people driven, by an impossible situation, to act out who they really are.
As the film opens, Bigelow re-stages the event that touched off what became known as the 12th Street Riot: a police raid on an unlicensed bar operating out of the second floor of a printing company. The cops have the right to shut this “blind pig” down, but the problem is their overzealous anger. They treat the black patrons like chattel, threatening them with violence, then herd them out the front door and line them up as if they were criminals. An incensed crowd gathers across the street (a man shouts “What did they do?,” a line that echoes across the decades), and before long their outrage erupts as if it couldn’t be bottled up anymore.
Someone smashes a store window. A Molotov cocktail gets hurled at a gas station. More windows are smashed, and merchandise stolen. The homemade bombs multiply, setting whole blocks ablaze. Rocks get hurled at firefighters. Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso), standing on a car with a megaphone, tries to calm the crowds by saying “Change doesn’t happen overnight! Change is coming!” You can feel an entire city clenching up to say, “Yeah, when?”
Bigelow works in jagged brief scenes, mixing in an occasional shot of period newsreel footage that testifies to the startling job the film’s production designer, Jeremy Hindle, and cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, have done in re-creating the crumbling squalor of Detroit in the white-flight era. Bigelow sketches in the emotional and logistical dynamics of a late-’60s urban riot: the violence that erupts out of the city’s residents without warning and, seemingly, without “rational” justification, because there’s no agenda behind it — it’s protest in the form of a spasm. The fact that we’re seeing African-Americans trash their own neighborhoods expresses something that’s profoundly implosive yet necessary: an incendiary had-it-up-to-here hopelessness tinged with a weary nothing-more-to-lose masochism.
Yet “Detroit” is not, fundamentally, a movie about how the chaos of 1967 played out in the streets of Detroit. That’s merely the backdrop. By day three of the riot, the National Guard has moved in, patrolling the boulevards in tanks, and large sections of the inner city have been closed off. Life goes on, but life is also at a standstill. It’s up to the police to “keep the peace,” which means enforcing a hard line on anyone who looks suspicious — which, to them, is more or less any black male they see. Every encounter is a tinderbox. And that’s the unruly, things-coming-apart background for the event that forms the cataclysmic dramatic center of “Detroit.”
The film’s shifting multi-character drama glides over to the last setting we’d expect: a downtown theater that’s hosting a pop-soul revue, with Martha and the Vandellas onstage singing “Nowhere to Run.” An up-and-coming, unsigned group — the Dramatics — is waiting in the wings for its big moment when the concert suddenly gets canceled. This crushes the heart of the group’s lead singer, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), and we can see why; he’s a born star, with the voice and face of a soul angel. He and the band’s manager wind up on the streets, rambling toward safety, finally landing at the Algiers Motel, where a group of brothers are hanging out, flirting and partying, along with two young white women from Ohio.
Larry and his buddy pay for a room in the hotel’s annex, just to find refuge. Everything seems to settle down until 17-year-old Carl (Jason Mitchell), demonstrating to his new acquaintances what a police encounter is really like for a young black man, shoots off a blank from a starter gun. He then gets the incredibly stupid idea of firing the gun out the window at the National Guard troops patrolling the area about 100 yards away. This brings a trio of junior cops to the premises, led by the tall, beetle-browed, trigger-happy Krauss, played by the 24-year-old British actor Will Poulter, with a kind of scary implacable blankness, as a petty thug of racist one-upmanship.
What follows is an extraordinary sequence of agonizing, protracted police terrorism. Krauss lines everyone up against the wall, demanding to know who the shooter was, and where the gun is. But hardly anyone saw Carl fire his toy pistol, and everyone, understandably, clams up. Krauss, who we’ve already seen shoot a looter in the back, thinks he’s enforcing “the rule of law,” but what’s really happening is that the riot has dissolved the rule of law.
What Krauss now seizes on isn’t law and order, but the desire to impose his will, to make black people knuckle under. He and his comrades react with horror to the sight of two white women in what seems to be a biracial sexual situation. As this bully cop descends into violence (threats, beatings, then worse), we can see he thinks it’s all a means to an end, but the brutality is actually the point. It’s a primal racial power play: ugly, terrifying and impossible to fight back against. Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), the tough, wily security guard who has found his way to the hotel, is no coward, but he’s smart enough to stay silent. The only way to survive is to submit. And even then…
By the time Krauss and his gang are finished, three innocents are lying dead in pools of blood. Yet the galvanizing complexity of “Detroit” isn’t that we’re watching a hiss-worthy “bad cop” commit unspeakable acts. It’s that his extreme rationalization for those acts makes him the tip of the iceberg, the end of the spear — the spear being a vast socially and psychologically encoded network of prejudicial thought and emotion about African-Americans that has never gone away. The parallels between what happens in “Detroit” and the cases of police brutality and homicide in the Black Lives Matter era are overwhelming, yet the film’s haunting message, and the reason it can’t be written off as a police-bashing movie, is that it’s about something bigger than the police. It’s about the way we all have lived with the normalization of racial violence in America.
Even when this brilliantly excruciating sequence is over, the nightmare doesn’t end. The movie turns Kafkaesque when Melvin, who didn’t even piss off the police, is called in as a suspect; he carries a .38 pistol for his job, so he’ll do. The film then leaps ahead to the trial of the three cops, an event that Bigelow and Boal stage less as a courtroom drama than as a prismatic snapshot of how, in our legal system, the racial deck gets stacked. Yet it’s all part of a larger story, and “Detroit,” by digging into the toxic heart of what that story is about, should provide for moviegoers, both black and white, a dramatic experience that is nothing short of a catharsis. Let the searing — and, God willing, the healing — begin.