“Detroit,” A Real American Horror Film

By Noah Gittell

They say that history is told by the winners. Perhaps this is why the story of the 12th Street Riot of 1967, more specifically the Algiers Motel Incident within the larger event, is being told now in Kathryn Bigelow’s unshakeable new film “Detroit.” Those writing the history books wanted to forget the incident in which, over the course of one night, a group of rogue white cops terrorized a group of innocent black victims, killing several, and received no jail time. With inquiries into white power and police brutality reaching a fever pitch these last few years, this story is a lightning bolt connecting the past to the present.

The opening scenes depict the tension created when an all-white police force patrols a black neighborhood. First, a harmless but illegal after-hours club is raided, and the partygoers are sent to jail. This incident ignites a flame, and the Detroit residents begin to loot and riot their own neighborhood, externalizing the internal chaos the police had imposed through violence and disenfranchisement. Through the fires, we zoom in on four people: Larry (Algee Smith) and Fred (Jacob Latimore), a singer and music manager, respectively, whose big break is interrupted when the riots cancel their latest show; Dismukes (John Boyega) a private security guard who abhors confrontation and instead tries to make friends with his local patrolmen; and Krauss (Will Poulter), a cruel, sociopathic police officer who is already under investigation for murdering an unarmed looter earlier in the day.

These parties congregate at or near the Algiers Motel. For Larry and Fred, the motel is an oasis from the raging fires and violence that dominate their neighborhood. There, they drink, smoke, and talk to girls. Dismukes is guarding a convenience store, while Krauss and his men are patrolling the streets, waiting for trouble. When another guest of the Algiers foolishly fires a starter pistol in the direction of the police, they assume a sniper has fired upon them and spring to action. They storm the motel, line up every suspect in the hallway, and begin violently interrogating them until they find the gun or the shooter.

For those forty-five minutes, Bigelow and her co-writer Mark Boal utilize all the skills they have honed on their last two collaborations — “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” — to create an indelible piece of cinema. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd brings his trademark handheld camera (“Captain Phillips,” “United 93”) to place the viewer inside of a situation that is otherwise unimaginable. As Krauss and his colleagues play torturous games on the victims — separating them, lying about what others have confessed, and firing their guns in other rooms to confuse them — “Detroit” comes to resemble a horror movie or home invasion thriller, but with higher stakes.

Yet, like some horror movies, “Detroit” suffers from a strange imbalance in which the villain is far more interesting than the heroes. Krauss is the obvious villain of this piece, but Bigelow seems strangely drawn to him. “Detroit” has enormous empathy for the victims, but it also creates a provocatively alluring vision of white power. The film dwells on Krauss’s lack of empathy. Even as the bodies start to pile up, he still feels righteous and never doubts himself. In this way, “Detroit” has far more to say about white power than it does about civil rights.

This may give credence to those who argue that Bigelow was the wrong person for the job, and that “Detroit” should have been made by filmmakers that understood systemic violence better. Bigelow is trying to figure it out. A black filmmaker may have dispensed with the inquiry altogether and focused on the experience of oppression. Such a filmmaker would have created more complete characters for the likes of Fred and Larry, who spent most of the film simply cowering in fear. They may also have found more to do with Dismukes, who follows the police into the hotel and tries to save lives while still appearing to Krauss like an ally in law enforcement. Luring in the background of every scene, however, he seems more like a bystander who wandered onto the set.

Perhaps this is why the author of “The Algiers Motel Incident,” the only text on this subject, did not want this film made, and Bigelow and Boal were forced to fictionalize these events. As such, it is not a definitive work of civil rights but rather a fascinating, valuable snapshot of white supremacy. It’s not the empowering civil rights film that many wanted, but its insight and sheer power make it worthwhile.

My Rating: See it in the Theater