“Detroit” is yet another masterpiece from that most singular of American directors, Kathryn Bigelow.
Like Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Detroit” was written by journalist Mark Boal, based largely on truth and testimonials, with necessary fictional fill-ins.
It’s set in July of 1967, during what is considered to be one of the largest and most devastating riots in American history. It begins when police raid a “blind pig,” or an illegal after-hours bar. A crowd gathers. Fueled by racial tension, violence erupts.
The film then introduces several key characters, including hair-trigger white cop Krauss (Will Poulter), soul singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega).
Near the Algiers Motel, a man fires a starter pistol from a window, and the National Guard and the police swarm the place, rounding up several black men and two white women.
This sequence is the harrowing centerpiece of the film, with Krauss bullying and beating the suspects, trying to find the source of the gunshots, while the military distances itself from a potential civil rights quagmire.
Having risen through the ranks of “B”-grade genre movies like “Near Dark” and “Point Break,” Bigelow is perhaps the only filmmaker that understands how violence can be both alluring and repulsive. Other, lesser directors tend to show only one black-or-white side of this gray area.
In “Detroit,” displays of pretend violence (designed to get people to talk) carry as much weight as actual acts of violence. The former is the result of order and the latter, chaos. They are easily mixed up.
Indeed, Bigelow manages to show here that a major by-product of racism is not necessarily hatred, but frustration. These deep feelings of exasperation and dismay drive the characters, and create three-dimensional performances, even from players — like Anthony Mackie, as a war veteran — appearing in only a few scenes.
Boyega’s Dismukes is the connecting character, a brave moral compass hoping to keep the peace, and hovering over moments of chaos like a hurt angel.
Aided by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (“United 93,” “The Big Short”), Bigelow keeps all the chaos completely decipherable, effectively establishing place and time, as well as a strong sense of the scale of the event; the pieces she chooses to show add up to a much larger picture outside the frame.
Yet it refuses to coddle, or to provide answers. As “Detroit” draws to a close, any human being with a heart and soul will be enraged by injustice and, perhaps, driven toward a new kindness.
Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie
Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Running time 2 hours, 23 minutes