‘Detroit’ is an uncomfortable but compelling look at real-life horrors

Aug 02, 2017
John Boyega portrays a security guard in “Detroit.” Contributed by Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures

“Detroit” is excruciating. And it’s outrageously good filmmaking, shining a light on a crucial period in our nation’s history: the African-American rioting of 1967 that tore Motown apart.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal approach the larger issues surrounding racial injustice by zeroing in on one real-life character, Larry Reed, the lead singer for an R&B group named the Dramatics. Reed and his best friend Fred Simple couldn’t get home from a gig because of street violence and took refuge at the Algiers Motel, specifically in a room in the motel’s annex building.

Before long, the entire building was targeted by local police, the National Guard and other law enforcement officers because of suspected gunfire coming from the upper floors. Local police led the raid, rounded up the guests, moved them all to a hallway and began playing a brutal game of intimidation. They’d take the suspects, one by one, into another room, and pretend to shoot them. And the suspects had to go along — stay quiet or be beaten.

By the end of the evening, three of the guests at the motel were actually shot dead under differing circumstances. And the officers involved in the shooting were later acquitted. That was 50 years ago, but it still sounds familiar.

Reed, the singer, survived that evening. And Boal and his research team interviewed Reed as well as several other participants in that night’s events.

Reed is played by Algee Smith, and “Detroit” will probably make him a star. He’s that good. Until now, he has been known for various television shows, including “The New Edition Story” on BET.

Starring as Simple is Jacob Latimore, who was previously seen in 2014’s “The Maze Runner.”

But the biggest name in the cast is John Boyega of the new “Star Wars” movies. He plays Melvin Dismukes, a security guard who was trying to protect a grocery store from looting when he heard the gunfire at the nearby Algiers Motel and decided to investigate. It’s probably best not to go into much detail about his fate. But Dismukes at least survived the evening, too, and was a consultant on the film.

If you’re wondering about the bad guys, let’s just say that the movie, while based on real events, is fictional and that the leader of the cops, a character named Krauss, is a composite, not based on a real person but reflecting the behavior of the three police officers who were charged in the killings that night. He’s played convincingly by Will Poulter, a Briton whose previous movies include “The Revenant,” “We’re the Millers” and “The Maze Runner.” There’s rarely been a better villain on screen.

Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd use a cinema verite style to film the action, most of which takes place in a hallway in the motel, with the suspects lined up facing a wall. Multiple cameras capture every movement, from every angle, making the viewer feel like he or she is an actual observer of the brutality that’s taking place.

Editor Billy Goldenberg also inserts TV footage from 1967, including segments showing Michigan Gov. George W. Romney and scenes of looting.

The overall effect of “Detroit” is quite unsettling. And you’ll probably leave the theater with the same set of mixed emotions, and perhaps anger, that you had when you watched Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” or “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Expect to see multiple Oscar nominations for “Detroit.” Expect to see some controversy, too, in part because it’s so hard to watch, and in part because African-Americans might wonder whether it’s Bigelow’s and Boal’s story to tell. There’s room for debate.